The Psyche Behind Cyc

By Michael A. Hiltzik

Popular culture has long held strong opinions about what the world’s smartest machine should look like. There’s the unblinking red eye of HAL, the brilliant, homicidal computer of Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the gilded humanoids of pulp sci-fi, and the flashing lights and gleaming boxes of countless doomsday scenarios.

But it’s a safe bet that nobody has imagined artificial intelligence the way it is taking shape inside a low-slung brown brick building hidden deep within a leafy research park north of town. Yet here beats the heart of the system known as Cyc.

For 17 years, a small band of engineers and programmers has been slaving away at the task of teaching Cyc much of what a human being knows. (The name comes from “encyclopedia” and is pronounced “psych.”) The idea, as articulated by the project’s creator, computer scientist Douglas B. Lenat, has been to create the most sophisticated artificial intelligence system ever devised — the closest a computer has come to replicating the human brain’s reasoning, learning ability and perhaps even its consciousness.

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