DOUG LENAT: a twenty year bet

How many people have in their lives a 2-10% chance of dramatically affecting the way the world works? When one of those chances come along, you should take it. --- Douglas B. Lenat

Like artists, scientists often weigh the risk of ridicule against the risk of obscurity. The question, ``Will people like this work?'' takes on the concrete form of whether your papers will be accepted in good conferences, and whether people will treat you with respect, laugh at you, or just ignore you. One sure thing about Doug Lenat: the last possibility is out of the question.

Still a young researcher, Lenat has set out to build programs to solve the central problems of Artificial Intelligence: to make a machine learn and to instill it with common knowledge and common sense. He has done so in the true spirit of an explorer, forging ahead with only a lightly sketched map in hand. To some critics, he follows in the footsteps of classical Artificial Intelligence to a cul de sac from which he will never emerge. Other critics mix skepticism with indignation that anyone should attempt to solve the central problems of AI before the theory has been completely worked out. Even we, as writers of this book, have felt the reflected heat of those attacks. ``Why Lenat?'' many have asked. You will soon find out.

Born in Philadelphia in 1950, Lenat grew up there and in Wilmington, Delaware. His family owned a soda bottling business. In the school library during sixth grade, Lenat discovered Isaac Asimov's popular books about physics and biology. Science became an outlet for his curiosity about how the world worked. When Lenat was twelve and a half, his father died very suddenly, and young Lenat turned to science as a form of solace.

I was superficially religious --- Jewish --- up until the time I was twelve and a half. A few months before my Bar Mitzvah, my father died. It was one of those things in which you decide the world was inherently not fair and regardless of the objective truth about God, it's not worth doing these observances if bad things happen.

After his father's death, Lenat's family moved frequently and he found himself often starting over in new school districts.

I was constantly being put in the lower classes --- the so-called `hood' classes. Since they hadn't had me in the previous years, they weren't going to put me in the advanced classes. You constantly had to prove yourself instead of resting on context and circumstances. People in the good classes were expected to do well and didn't work very hard. The people in my classes were not expected to do well and you really had to work hard.

Lenat's talents showed. In 1967, he was a finalist in an International Science Fair. He described a closed form definition of the Nth prime number. Along with other winners from the Delaware Valley, Lenat received an all expenses-paid trip to Detroit. At the time, Lenat was disappointed about the location --- the previous year's fair had been held in Tokyo --- but the fair had other benefits. Contestants were to be judged by practicing scientists, researchers and engineers.

Before that, the closest thing to a scientist I had met was my high school science teacher.

Lenat entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1968. The Vietnam War was at its height and Lenat received a draft number low enough to make him think he might have to go to war. The uncertainty of those times convinced him to speed up his academic training while his student deferment lasted. He decided to study both physics and math.

Lenat started college interested in physics and mathematics, but he changed his mind by the end.

I got far enough along in mathematics to realize I would not be one of the world's great mathematicians... I got far enough along in physics to realize that in some sense it was all built on sand --- that people were spending their lives doing things like finding mathematical solutions to things like Einstein's astrophysical equations --- whether or not it had any physical significance or reality... People would walk around with ever-growing chest pocket cards of elementary particles which really means resonances that were found but not understood. Things were just happening that divorced themselves from physical reality.

A course taught by John W. Carr III in 1971 introduced Lenat to Artificial Intelligence. Computers had created the technology for Artificial Intelligence, but research, Lenat decided, was still at an early stage.

... [It was] like being back doing astronomy right after the invention of the telescope. The subject was inherently fascinating, but it had two other really interesting properties.

One was that it was positively reinforcing --- you would be building something like a mental amplifier that would make you smarter, hence would enable you to do even more and better things.

The second interesting property was that it was clear researchers in the field didn't know what the hell they were doing.