Humanising AI: The 30 year project to build a brain

Since 1984, Cycorp has been discreetly working on an advanced artificial intelligence system, Cyc, that could “humanise” robots and objects with highly developed understanding and reasoning capabilities.

From C-3PO in the Star Wars franchise to Bender in the Futurama television series, the idea of having super-intelligent robots that behave like humans has long fascinated people. Apple’s introduction of Siri gave us a taste of what it’s like to have daily interactions with an intelligent system, but anyone who has used Siri knows that (s)he has limits and flaws.

So what is it that makes Cyc’s artificial intelligence seem less, well, artificial?

The key is a focus on building Cyc’s ability to make inferences so that it can execute commands without needing every specific action pre-coded.

“It’s the difference between someone who understands what they’re doing and someone going through the motions of performing something,” said Cycorp president and CEO Doug Lenat in an interview with Business Insider.

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Cycorp has been quietly building Cyc for the last 30 years in a process that is more like educating than programming, with the goal of implementing the system with human knowledge and logic.

The idea of a computer like Cyc immediately conjures images of robots that can complete daily tasks for you, à la Rosie the housemaid from The Jetsons. While these robots would be immensely useful, Cycorp envisions even more.

In a preview for the Ginormous Systems conference that was held in Washington DC last year, Lenat discussed a future that is revolutionised by intelligent systems, saying “every door, every bicycle, every bridge will have the suitable sort of RFID tip, will have its own address and you’ll be able to go up and have a conversation with it, sort of like you do with Siri today.”

Clearly, Lenat sees Cyc as part of this future. If Cyc could be installed into these everyday objects, “humanising” things could become a reality.

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For now, Cyc is still being developed into the brain-like system that Cycorp envisions, but it is already being put to use as a sixth grade maths teacher. Cyc works with students by acting as one of them.

The student tries to help it understand how to solve the problems, and through this process Cyc learns what the student is confused about and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.

Cycorp’s inference-focused artificial intelligence promises a whole new kind of robot, one that can take many forms but “think” with an intelligence that is unprecedentedly human.


Featured image courtesy of Roger Schultz, first body image is a screenshot from Futurama S06 E17, “Benderama” .


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