Day after day since 1984, teams of programmers, linguists, theologians, mathematicians and philosophers have plugged away at a $60-million project they hope will transform human existence: teaching a computer common sense.
They have been feeding a database named Cyc 1.4 million truths and generalities about daily life so it can automatically make assumptions humans make: Creatures that die stay dead. Dogs have spines. Scaling a cliff requires intense physical effort.
Though some critics question the potential of this painstaking effort, the inventors believe that Cyc will form the brains of computers with supercharged reasoning abilities--which could help us work more efficiently, make us understand one another better and even help us predict the previously unforeseeable.
Cyc (pronounced "psych") already has helped Lycos generate more relevant results on its Internet search engine. The military, which has invested $25 million in Cyc, is testing it as an intelligence tool in the war against terrorism. Companies use Cyc to unify disparate databases and are examining a new application that warns when computer networks have vulnerabilities hackers can exploit.
This spring, the developers' company, Cycorp Inc., sent their creation off for some higher education, creating a Web link to let the public download Cyc's knowledge base and teach it things too.
Cycorp's founder and president, Doug Lenat, believes that if enough people log in to share the world's collective wisdom, Cyc will become vastly more useful.
For now, Cyc is just a few hundred megabytes that can be stored on a single CD. Someday, Lenat envisions its becoming standard equipment in computers or being placed on a network server to fuel dozens of applications. It could annotate e-mails to put them in better context for their recipients, serve as an instant language translator and even offer humans advice from varying points of view.
"This is the most exciting time we've ever seen with the project. We stand on the threshold of success," Lenat, 51, said recently in Cycorp's offices in a quiet Austin, Texas, complex. "What people are able to do on a day-by-day basis could be dramatically increased if we are successful."
Such hopes are not new in artificial intelligence, which has produced more disappointment than marvel.
As early as the 1940s, researchers envisioned computers that could hold vast amounts of knowledge, learn from experience and reason for themselves. The fantasy was most famously depicted by HAL, the computer that operates a spaceship but turns murderous in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Though early artificial intelligence showed promise, it was of limited use beyond specific tasks. One 1970s program helped doctors diagnose kinds of meningitis by asking for details about a patient's condition. But the program also would determine that a burned-out car had meningitis, because it could not know that was ridiculous.