May 2, 2015

The Know-It-All Machine

Publication Date:  Sat, 09/01/2001

Lingua Franca Magazine Volume 11, No. 6  –  September 2001 (COVER STORY)

The Know-It-All Machine – An audacious quest to teach a computer common sense — one fact at a time

FLORENCE ROSSIGNOL HAS JUST FINISHED using an on-line travel site to plan a package tour across Europe. The site has prompted her for a few facts about herself: her date of birth, her education and nationality, her occupation. She has typed in that she was born in 1945 and trained as a nurse. She has also volunteered the fact that she is claustrophobic. As far as on-line shopping goes, it looks like an everyday event.

Except this Web site is smart — unusually smart. It has been outfitted with a copy of Cyc (pronounced sike), artificial-intelligence software touted for its ability to process information with humanlike common sense.

At one point, Cyc detects a problem: The proposed tour involves taking the Channel Tunnel from London to France; Rossignol is claustrophobic. The Web site notes that Rossignol “may dislike” the Channel Tunnel, and Cyc justifies the assertion with a series of ten related statements, including:

31 miles is greater than 50 feet.

The Channel Tunnel is 31 miles long.

Florence Rossignol suffers from claustrophobia.

Any path longer than 50 feet should be considered “long” in a travel context.

If a long tunnel is a route used by a tour, a claustrophobic person taking the tour might dislike the tunnel.

At the same time, Cyc scours the list of various cities on the tour and takes special notice of Geneva, where one can visit the Red Cross Museum. This time, Cyc’s thinking features the following steps:

The Red Cross Museum is found in Geneva.

Florence Rossignol is a nurse.

Nursing is what nurses do.

The Red Cross Museum (organization) has nursing as its “focus.”

If an organization has a particular type of activity as its “focus,” and a person holds a position in which they perform that activity, that person will feel significantly about that organization.

Bingo. The travel site tells Rossignol to make sure she catches the Red Cross Museum in Geneva — but for God’s sake, don’t take the Channel Tunnel.

Doug Lenat is pleased. Though this impressive display happens to be a promotional demo (Rossignol is a fictitious character), it is, he explains, genuinely representative of his invention’s unique abilities. Most computer programs are utterly useless when it comes to everyday reasoning because they don’t have very much common sense. They don’t know that claustrophobics are terrified of enclosed spaces. They don’t know that fifty feet can sometimes be considered a “long” distance. They don’t even know something as tautological as “Nursing is what nurses do.”

Cyc, however, does know such things — because Lenat has been teaching it about the world one fact at a time for seventeen long years. “We had to kick-start a computer, give it all the things we take for granted,” he says. Ever since 1984, the former Stanford professor has been sitting in Cyc’s Austin, Texas, headquarters and writing down the platitudes of our “consensus reality” — all the basic facts that we humans know about the world around us: “Water is wet”; “Everyone has a mother”; “When you let go of things they usually fall.” Cyc currently has a data