Doug Lenat (1950-2023)
When I started studying computer science, one of the initiation rites was to read the Jargon File. I stumbled when I read the entry on the microlenat:
microlenat: The unit of bogosity. Abbreviated μL, named after Douglas Lenat. Like the farad it is considered far too large a unit for practical use, so bogosity is usually expressed in microlenats.
I had not heard of Douglas Lenat then. English being my third language, I wasn’t sure what bogosity is. So I tried to learn a bit more to understand it, and I read a bit about Cyc and Eurisko, but since I just started computer science, my mind wasn’t really ready for things such as knowledge representation and common sense reasoning. I had enough on my plate struggling with resistors, electronegativity, and fourier transformations. Looking back, it is ironic that none of these played a particular role in my future, but knowledge representation sure did.
It took me almost ten years to come back to Cyc and Lenat’s work. I was then studying ontological engineering, a term that according to Wikipedia was coined by Lenat, a fact I wasn’t aware of at that time. I was working with RDF, which was co-developed by Guha, who has worked with Lenat at Cycorp, a fact I wasn’t aware of at that time. I was trying to solve problems that Lenat had tackled decades previously, a fact I wasn’t aware of at that time.
I got to know Cyc through OpenCyc and Cyc Europe, led by Michael Witbrock. I only met Doug Lenat a decade later when I was at Google.
Doug’s aspirations and ambitions had numerous people react with rolling eyes and sneering comments, as can be seen in the entry in the Jargon File. And whereas I might have absorbed similar thoughts as well, they also inspired me. I worked with a few people who told me “consider yourself lucky if you have a dozen people reading your paper, that’s the impact you will likely have”, but I never found that a remotely satisfactory idea. Then there were people like Doug, who shouted out “let’s solve common sense!”, and stormed ahead trying to do so.
His optimism and his bias to action, his can-do attitude, surely influenced me profoundly in choosing my own way forward. Not only once did I feel like I was channeling Lenat when I was talking about knowledge bases that anyone can edit, about libraries of functions anyone can use, or about abstract representations of natural language texts. And as ambitious as these projects have been called, they all carefully avoid the incomparably more ambitious goals Doug had his eyes set on.
And Doug didn’t do it from the comfort of a tenured academic position, but he bet his career and house on it, he founded a company, and kept it running for four decades. I was always saddened that Cyc was kept behind closed doors, and I hope that this will not hinder the impact and legacy it might have, but I understand that this was the magic juice that kept the company running.
One of Doug’s systems, Eurisko, became an inspiration and namesake for an AI system that played the role of the monster of the week in a first season episode of the X-Files, a fact I wasn’t aware of until now. Doug was a founder and advisory member of the TTI/Vanguard series of meetings, to which I was invited to present an early version of Abstract Wikipedia, a fact I wasn’t aware of until now. And I am sure there are more facts about Doug and his work and how it reverberated with mine that I am unaware of still.
Doug was a person ahead of their time, a person who lived, worked on and saw a future about knowledge that is creative, optimistic and inspiring. I do not know if we will ever reach that future, but I do know that Doug Lenat and his work will always be a beacon on our journey forward. Doug Lenat died yesterday in Austin, Texas, two weeks shy of his 73rd birthday, after a battle with cancer.
To state it in CycL, the language Cyc is written in:
(#$dateOfDeath #$DougLenat "2023-08-31")
Molly Holzschlag (1963-2023)