One Genius’ Lonely Crusade to Teach a Computer Common Sense

Over July 4th weekend in 1981, several hundred game nerds gathered at a banquet hall in San Mateo, California. Personal computing was still in its infancy, and the tournament was decidedly low-tech. Each match played out on a rectangular table filled with paper game pieces, and a March Madness-style tournament bracket hung on the wall. The game was called Traveller Trillion Credit Squadron, a role-playing pastime of baroque complexity. Contestants did battle using vast fleets of imaginary warships, each player guided by an equally imaginary trillion-dollar budget and a set of rules that spanned several printed volumes. If they won, they advanced to the next round of war games—until only one fleet remained.Doug Lenat, then a 29-year-old computer science professor at nearby Stanford University, was among the players. But he…

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