Vulcan’s “Digital Aristotle” Moves Toward Vision of Computers that Answer Scientific Questions

The days when any one person could be a credible expert on all the world’s scientific knowledge, capable of distilling complex data and concepts into a clear, understandable answer, are said to have ended with Aristotle. Now Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, is pursuing a vision of a computer program that harnesses scientific knowledge from the modern world and reasons through it to create clear answers to questions, sort of like a “Digital Aristotle.”

The concept first got off the ground in 2004 when Vulcan, the company that oversees Allen’s business and charitable projects, sponsored three competing teams to perform some initial proof-of-concept experiments. Earlier this week, I met with Mark Greaves, Vulcan’s director of knowledge systems, to learn more about how this program known as “Project Halo” is progressing.

“It’s going to change the world,” Greaves says. “To be able to ask questions and get answers that are easy to understand—it’s fundamental to human interaction, and it’s so hard to do now on the Internet.”

Greaves, 43, came to this project in 2005 from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He has a doctorate in philosophy from Stanford University, with a special interest in logic and how meaning is derived from sentences. He also has a master’s in computer science from UCLA. His new task on Project Halo has some similarities to other work in semantic Web search and artificial intelligence, and it is trying to solve a very difficult technical problem.

As Greaves tells the story, this project has come a long way since its early days. Back in 2004, Vulcan’s contractors took 70 pages of Advanced Placement chemistry material, loaded it into the computer, and then tested it to see how well it could answer AP-level chemistry questions. There were two big shortcomings at the time: the process cost about $10,000 a page to input the information, and the knowledge engineers didn’t have enough expertise in chemistry to structure chemistry knowledge appropriately.

Now, Vulcan’s contractors have brought the cost down to $100 a page, Greaves says. In the last major experiment completed in 2006, the software system was able to correctly answer about 40 percent of the questions on AP exams for chemistry, biology, and physics. The knowledge bases were assembled by students with expertise in a given field of science, not highly-trained knowledge engineers.

“We lowered the cost by two orders of magnitude, with an increase in performance,” Greaves says.

There’s still plenty of work to do to make this software program, now called Aura, more workable. … Next Page »

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