Eurisko and Paranoia TV

From: Jim Fehlinger (
Date: Sat Mar 10 2001 - 18:25:03 MST

Folks on this list who have read Eliezer S. Yudkowsky's essays
know the historical significance he accords to a quarter-
century-old AI research program called "Eurisko" (which he apparently
learned about via Eric K. Drexler's _Engines of Creation_, as exemplified
by the remark "Eurisko, designed by Douglas Lenat, is the best
existing example of a seed AI, or, for that matter, of any AI"
(in Section 1.2 "Creating an AI Industry" of _The Plan to Singularity_
at ). See also
footnote 1 to this section (at )
and _Coding a Transhuman AI 2.2.0_ at
(passim, and glossary entry at )

Douglas B. Lenat (in "From _2001_ to 2001: Common Sense and the Mind of HAL",
his contribution to _HAL's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality_,
edited by David G. Stork [MIT Press, 1997]) describes the program thus:

"In the late 1970s I built a computer program (Eurisko) that discovered
things on its own in many fields. To get it to work, I had to give it the
power to tinker with its own learning heuristics and its own goals. I would
leave it running overnight and hurry in the next morning to see what it had
come up with. Often I'd find it in a mode best described as 'dead.' Sometime
during the night, Eurisko would decide that the best thing to do was to
commit suicide and shut itself off. More precisely, it modified its own
judgmental rules in a way that valued 'making no errors at all' as highly
as 'making productive new discoveries.' As soon as Eurisko did this, it
found it could successfully meet its new goal by doing nothing at all for
the rest of the night. This reminds me of HAL's boast: 'No 9000 computer
has ever made a mistake.' I eventually had to add a new heuristic to Eurisko --
one it couldn't modify in any way -- to explicitly forbid this sort of suicide."

The full text of Lenat's article is available on-line at the Cycorp Web site: .

I have to admit that, although I had heard of Lenat and Cyc before
reading any of Eliezer Yudkowsky's essays, I would not have recognized
the name "Eurisko" prior to '97 or '98. However, I was extremely surprised,
while channel-surfing a couple of weekends ago, to hear the word mentioned in,
of all things, an episode of the Fox television show _The X-Files_.
This turned out to be a re-run of a quite old (first season, from
Oct. '93) episode entitled "Ghost in the Machine" (written by Alex
Gansa and Howard Gordon, who apparently did enough background research
for their story to have turned up the name of Lenat's program). This was
apparently the first _X-Files_ script to involve an AI; the later 5th-season
(Feb. '98) episode "Kill Switch", written by William Gibson and Tom Maddox,
actually received some notice on this list
(e.g., ).

"Ghost in the Machine" is based on the "building-security AI turns homicidal"
formula (cf. the 1993 TV movie _The Tower_, ),
but there's some entertaining dialog involving computer wizard "Brad Wilczek",
as well as paranoid hints of what might happen if the Defense Department ever
got the notion that some loose cannon of an independent genius really could
create an AI. "Eurisko" in this story is the name of the company Wilczek
founded (in "Crystal City", Virginia), not the AI. The FBI gets involved when
the company's CEO dies under mysterious circumstances. The excerpt below is
lifted from "Katsku's X-Files" Web site, where complete screenplays of many
of the episodes can be found (see ) --
watch out for SPOILERS.

(MULDER and SCULLY drive up. As they walk to the front door, a camera
follows them.)
MULDER: So this is what a 220 IQ and a $400 million severance settlement
buys you.


WILCZEK: You can divide the computer science industry into two types of
people - neat and scruffy... Neat people like things neat. They wear nicely
pressed suits and work on surface phenomena. Things they can understand. Market
shares, and third quarter profits.
SCULLY: And you had a different vision for the company?
WILCZEK: I started Eurisko out of my parents' garage. I was 22 years old.
I'd just spent a year following around the Grateful Dead. You know what
Eurisko means?
MULDER: That's from the Greek, isn't it? Um, "I learn things."
WILCZEK: Not exactly. It means "I discover things." (MULDER shrugs)
Unfortunately, [Eurisko's murdered CEO] wasn't interested in discovery.
He was a short-sighted, power-hungry opportunist... That's why you guys
are here, isn't it? I'm your logical suspect.
SCULLY: You don't seem too worried.
WILCZEK: It's a puzzle, Miss Scully, and scruffy minds like me like puzzles.
We enjoy walking down unpredictable avenues of thought, turning new corners
- but as a general rule, scruffy minds don't commit murder.

(MULDER and SCULLY share a look under ominous music.)


(SCULLY working at computer.)

SCULLY VOICE OVER: Some see genius as the ability to connect the unconnected
- to make juxtapositions, to see relationships where others cannot. Is Brad
Wilczek a genius? I don't know. But I do know this for certain. He has a
predilection for elaborate game playing...


MULDER: I need to know why Brad Wilczek is the subject of a Code Five
investigation. What the Defense Department wants with him.
DEEP THROAT: What do you think they'd want with the most innovative programmer
in this hemisphere?
MULDER: Software.
DEEP THROAT: For years, Wilczek has thumbed his nose at any contract involving
weapons applications. He's a bleeding heart.
MULDER: What kind of software?
DEEP THROAT: How much do you know about artificial intelligence?
MULDER: I thought it was only theoretical.
DEEP THROAT: It was, until two years ago. You remember Helsinki, the first
time that a chess playing computer ever beat a Grand Master? (MULDER nods.)
That was Wilczek's program. And the rumor was that he did it by developing the
first adaptive network.
MULDER: An adaptive network?
DEEP THROAT: It's a learning machine. A computer that actually thinks. And
it's, ah, become something of a holy grail for some of our more acquisitive
colleagues in the Department of Defense.


MULDER: I checked with Congressman Klebanon and the Department of Corrections
Subcommittee. I even petitioned the Attorney General's office.
DEEP THROAT: You won't find him.
MULDER: They can't just take a man like Brad Wilczek without an explanation.
DEEP THROAT: They can do anything they want.
MULDER: Where is he?
DEEP THROAT: In the middle of what we in the trade call "hard bargaining".
MULDER: Wilczek won't deal. He'll never work for them.
DEEP THROAT: Loss of freedom does funny things to a man, and remember,
Wilczek confessed to two murders, and you effectively destroyed the only
evidence that could have exonerated him.
MULDER: What else could I have done?
DEEP THROAT: Nothing... Unless you were willing to let the technology survive.
MULDER: The Department of Defense still hasn't found anything?
DEEP THROAT: They've been on it for five days. Wilczek's virus was thorough. It
left no trace of the artificial intelligence. The machine is dead.

While googling for recent Web pages referencing Lenat and Cyc, I came across
the following interesting page -- "The Outsider's Guide to Artificial
Intelligence", at
Following a link from this page to a book excerpt containing a brief bio of
Lenat hosted at (my alma mater!) New York University: ,
I discovered a couple of details of some amusement to me (if to no one else) --
he's two years older than I am (b. 1950), and he spent some of his childhood in
Wilmington, Delaware (I grew up a few miles away in Newark, Delaware).
He seems to have benefitted more from that environment than I did (partly, he
claims, from having changed school districts so often that he never got a chance
to loaf in the advanced classes -- he was always tracked with the "hoods" who
weren't expected to do well, so he had to work especially hard to overcome that
expectation) ;-> .

I asked a friend to confirm the translation of "eurisko" given in
the dialog above. His reply (quoted with permission) was:

> > Anyway, I heard recently (on an episode of the TV series _The X
> > Files_, of all places) that the term "eurisko" is also a sentence in
> > Greek meaning "I discover things." Can you confirm that?
> My Greek-English dictionary does indeed give that meaning.
> (Fortunately, in Greek as in Latin dictionaries, the first-person
> singular is the canonical form, so it is sitting right there, and I
> don't need to know the conjugation.) "To find, find out, discover."
> It can also mean devise, invent, fetch, sell for, be worth.
> > Also, I assume the word "heuristic" has a related etymology (is it a
> > coinage, by any chance, or a naturally-evolved word?)
> It does come from that root, says the OED, but is an irregular
> formation & did not exist in ancient Greek. It appears to have been
> coined, more or less simultaneously in English & German, in the early
> 19th century as a technicality of logic.
> As you might suspect, Archimedes' "eureka" is the perfect tense of the
> same verb. Says the OED: "The correct spelling _heureka_ is rare".
> (The sound represented by H in English does not have a counterpart in
> the Greek alphabet; it was regarded as a property of the following
> vowel & was indicated by putting a reversed apostrophe over it.)
> --- Joe Fineman
> ||: Faith is belief for which evidence is not needed, because it :||
> ||: is backed up with the threat of a beating. :||

Jim F.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon May 28 2001 - 09:59:40 MDT