The Cost of Common Sense

By Lamont Wood

Ask most companies how they bring value to the market and they’ll point to their products. Cycorp is a bit different. The 10-year-old company cares about the services it sells – but mainly because they bankroll it that can endow computers with something approaching common sense.

This quest has been so time-consuming that most venture capitalists would long ago have written off their investments – or demanded the CEO’s head on a platter. That Doug Lenat and his 54 employees have avoided this fate is a lesson in managing long-term, visionary R&D projects.

Two decades ago, Lenat was a computer science professor at Stanford University with a dream of building a com­puter smart enough to know, for example, that people are smaller than houses and live in them. But he feared that, with just himself and a half-dozen grad students, programming such a computer would take more than a lifetime. Meanwhile, American high-tech leaders were worrying that the Japanese, with their so-called “fifth generation” artificial intelligence development project, would do the same thing to the American computer industry that they had done to the automotive and consumer-electronics industries. So they set up a research consortium called the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC). Lenat snatched at the backing offered by MCC, and went to work for MCC in 1984.

Continue reading at MIT Technology Review.

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