Paul Allen Wants to Teach Machines Common Sense
Posted February 28, 2018 5:02 p.m. EST
Updated February 28, 2018 5:15 p.m. EST
SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft’s co-founder Paul Allen said Wednesday that he was pumping an additional $125 million into his nonprofit computer research lab for an ambitious new effort to teach machines “common sense.”
The money for the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence will about double the lab’s budget over the next three years, helping to fund existing research as well as the new effort, called Project Alexandria. In the years and decades to come, the lab hopes to create a database of fundamental knowledge that humans take for granted but machines have always lacked.
“To make real progress in AI, we have to overcome the big challenges in the area of common sense,” said Allen, who founded software giant Microsoft in the 1970s with Bill Gates.
Today, machines can recognize nearby objects, identify spoken words, translate one language into another and mimic other human tasks with an accuracy that was not possible just a few years ago. These talents are readily apparent in the new wave of autonomous vehicles, warehouse robotics, smartphones and digital assistants.
But these machines struggle with other basic tasks. Though Amazon’s Alexa does a good job of recognizing what you say, it cannot respond to anything more than basic commands and questions. When confronted with heavy traffic or unexpected situations, driverless cars just sit there.
AI “recognizes objects, but can’t explain what it sees. It can’t read a textbook and understand the questions in the back of the book,” said Oren Etzioni, a former University of Washington professor who oversees the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. “It is devoid of common sense.”
Success may require years or even decades of work — if it comes at all. Others have tried to digitize common sense, and the task has always proved too large.
In the mid-1980s, Doug Lenat, a former Stanford University professor, with backing from the government and several of the country’s largest tech companies, started a project called Cyc. He and his team of researchers worked to codify all the simple truths that we learn as children, from “you can’t be in two places at the same time” to “when drinking from a cup, hold the open end up.”
Thirty years later, Lenat and his team are still at work on this “common sense engine” — with no end in sight.
Allen helped fund Cyc, and he believes it is time to take a fresh approach, he said, because modern technologies make it easier to build this kind of system.
Lenat welcomed the new project. But he also warned of challenges: Cyc has burned through hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, running into countless problems that were not evident when the project began. He called them “buzz saws.”