A.I. Has Grown Up and Left Home


David Auerbach in Nautilus (René Descartes’ illustration of dualism.Wikimedia Commons):

Our approach to thinking, from the early days of the computer era, focused on the question of how to represent the knowledge about which thoughts are thought, and the rules that operate on that knowledge. So when advances in technology made artificial intelligence a viable field in the 1940s and 1950s, researchers turned to formal symbolic processes. After all, it seemed easy to represent “There’s a cat on the mat” in terms of symbols and logic:


Literally translated, this reads as “there exists variable x and variable y such that x is a cat, y is a mat, and x is sitting on y.” Which is no doubt part of the puzzle. But does this get us close to understanding what it is to think that there is a cat sitting on the mat? The answer has turned out be “no,” in part because of those constants in the equation. “Cat,” “mat,” and “sitting” aren’t as simple as they seem. Stripping them of their relationship to real-world objects, and all of the complexity that entails, dooms the project of making anything resembling a human thought.

This lack of context was also the Achilles heel of the final attempted moonshot of symbolic artificial intelligence. The Cyc Project was a decades-long effort, begun in 1984, that attempted to create a general-purpose “expert system” that understood everything about the world. A team of researchers under the direction of Douglas Lenat set about manually coding a comprehensive store of general knowledge. What it boiled down to was the formal representation of millions of rules, such as “Cats have four legs” and “Richard Nixon was the 37th President of the United States.” Using formal logic, the Cyc (from “encyclopedia”) knowledge base could then draw inferences. For example, it could conclude that the author of Ulysses was less than 8 feet tall:


(writtenBy Ulysses-Book ? SPEAKER)

(equals ?SPEAKER JamesJoyce))

(isa JamesJoyce IrishCitizen)

(isa JamesJoyce Human)


(isa ?SOMEONE Human)

(maximumHeightInFeet ?SOMEONE 8)

Unfortunately, not all facts are so clear-cut. Take the statement “Cats have four legs.” Some cats have three legs, and perhaps there is some mutant cat with five legs out there. (And Cat Stevens only has two legs.) So Cyc needed a more complicated rule, like “Most cats have four legs, but some cats can have fewer due to injuries, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a cat could have more than four legs.” Specifying both rules and their exceptions led to a snowballing programming burden.

More here.