The Foundations of AI

In this article, we provide a brief history of the disciplines that contributed ideas, viewpoints, and techniques to AI. Like any history, this one is forced to concentrate on a small number of people, events, and ideas and to ignore others that also were important.

We organize the history around a series of questions. We certainly would not wish to give the impression that these questions are the only ones the disciplines address or that the disciplines have all been working toward AI as their ultimate fruition.

Foundations of AI

Philosophy

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), whose bust appears on the front cover of this book, was the first to formulate a precise set of laws governing the rational part of the mind. He developed an informal system of syllogisms for proper reasoning, which in principle allowed one to generate conclusions mechanically, given initial premises.

Much later, Ramon Lull (d. 1315) had the idea that useful reasoning could actually be carried out by a mechanical artifact. Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) proposed that reasoning was like numerical computation, that “we add and subtract in our silent thoughts.” The automation of computation itself was already well under way. Around 1500, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) designed but did not build a mechanical calculator; recent reconstructions have shown the design to be functional.

The first known calculating machine was constructed around 1623 by the German scientist Wilhelm Schickard (1592–1635), although the Pascaline, built-in 1642 by Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), is more famous. Pascal wrote that “the arithmetical machine produces effects which appear nearer to thought than all the actions of animals.”

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) built a mechanical device intended to carry out operations on concepts rather than numbers,
but its scope was rather limited. Leibniz did surpass Pascal by building a calculator that could add, subtract, multiply, and take roots, whereas the Pascaline could only add and subtract. Some speculated that machines might not just do calculations but actually be able to
think and act on their own.

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In his 1651 book Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes suggested the idea of an “artificial animal,” arguing “For what is the heart but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels.” It’s one thing to say that the mind operates, at least in part, according to logical rules, and to build physical systems that emulate some of those rules; it’s another to say that the mind itself is such a physical system. Ren´ e Descartes (1596–1650) gave the first clear discussion of the distinction between mind and matter and of the problems that arise.

One problem with a purely physical conception of the mind is that it seems to leave little room for free will: if the mind is governed entirely by physical laws, then it has no more free will than a rock “deciding” to fall toward the center of the earth. Descartes was a strong advocate of the power of reasoning in understanding the world, a philosophy now called rationalism, and one that counts Aristotle and Leibnitz as members. But Descartes was also a proponent of dualism.

He held that there is a part of the human mind (or soul or spirit) that is outside of nature, exempt from physical laws. Animals, on the other hand, did not possess this dual quality; they could be treated as machines. An alternative to dualism is materialism, which holds
that the brain’s operation according to the laws of physics constitutes the mind. Free will is simply the way that the perception of available choices appears to the choosing entity.

Given a physical mind that manipulates knowledge, the next problem is to establish the source of knowledge. The empiricism movement, starting with Francis Bacon’s (1561–1626) Novum Organum,2 is characterized by a dictum of John Locke (1632–1704): “Nothing is in the understanding, which was not first in the senses.”

David Hume’s (1711–1776) A Treatise of Human Nature (Hume, 1739) proposed what is now known as the principle of induction: that general rules are acquired by exposure to repeated associations between their elements. Building on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) and Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), the famous Vienna Circle, led by Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970), developed the doctrine of logical positivism.

This doctrine holds that all knowledge can be characterized by logical theories connected, ultimately, to observation sentences that correspond to sensory inputs; thus logical positivism combines rationalism and empiricism. The confirmation theory of Carnap and Carl Hempel (1905–1997) attempted to analyze the acquisition of knowledge from experience.

Carnap’s book The Logical Structure of the World (1928) defined an explicit computational procedure for extracting knowledge from elementary experiences. It was probably the first theory of mind as a computational process.

The final element in the philosophical picture of the mind is the connection between knowledge and action. This question is vital to AI because intelligence requires action as well as reasoning. Moreover, only by understanding how actions are justified can we understand how to build an agent whose actions are justifiable (or rational). Aristotle argued (in De Motu Animalium) that actions are justified by a logical connection between goals and knowledge of the action’s outcome:

But how does it happen that thinking is sometimes accompanied by action and sometimes not, sometimes by motion, and sometimes not? It looks as if almost the same thing happens as in the case of reasoning and making inferences about unchanging objects. But
in that case the end is a speculative proposition . . . whereas here the conclusion which results from the two premises is an action. . . . I need covering; a cloak is a covering. I need a cloak. What I need, I have to make; I need a cloak. I have to make a cloak. And
the conclusion, the “I have to make a cloak,” is an action.

In the Nicomachean Ethics (Book III. 3, 1112b), Aristotle further elaborates on this topic, suggesting an algorithm:

We deliberate not about ends, but about means. For a doctor does not deliberate whether he shall heal, nor an orator whether he shall persuade, . . . They assume the end and consider how and by what means it is attained, and if it seems easily and best produced thereby; while if it is achieved by one means only they consider how it will be achieved by this and by what means this will be achieved, till they come to the first cause, . . . and what is last in the order of analysis seems to be first in the order of becoming. And if we come on an impossibility, we give up the search, e.g., if we need money and this cannot be got; but if a thing appears possible we try to do it.

Aristotle’s algorithm was implemented 2300 years later by Newell and Simon in their GPS program. We would now call it a regression planning system. The goal-based analysis is useful but does not say what to do when several actions will achieve the goal or when no action will achieve it completely.

Antoine Arnauld (1612–1694) correctly described a quantitative formula for deciding what action to take in cases like this (John Stuart Mill’s (1806–1873) book Utilitarianism (Mill, 1863) promoted the idea of rational decision criteria in all spheres of human activity. The more formal theory of decisions is discussed in the following section.

See Also: The Future of AI: How Artificial Intelligence Will Change the World

Mathematics

Philosophers staked out some of the fundamental ideas of AI, but the leap to a formal science required a level of mathematical formalization in three fundamental areas: logic, computation, and probability. The idea of formal logic can be traced back to the philosophers of ancient Greece, but its mathematical development really began with the work of George Boole (1815–1864), who worked out the details of propositional, or Boolean, logic (Boole, 1847).

In 1879, Gottlob Frege (1848–1925) extended Boole’s logic to include objects and relations, creating the firstorder logic that is used today. Alfred Tarski (1902–1983) introduced a theory of reference that shows how to relate the objects in a logic to objects in the real world.

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The next step was to determine the limits of what could be done with logic and computation. The first nontrivial algorithm is thought to be Euclid’s algorithm for computing greatest common divisors. The word algorithm (and the idea of studying them) comes from al-Khowarazmi, a Persian mathematician of the 9th century, whose writings also introduced Arabic numerals and algebra to Europe.

Boole and others discussed algorithms for logical deduction, and, by the late 19th century, efforts were under way to formalize general mathematical reasoning as logical deduction. In 1930, Kurt Godel (1906–1978) showed that there exists an effective procedure to prove any true statement in the first-order logic of Frege and Russell, but that first-order logic could not capture the principle of mathematical induction needed to characterize the natural numbers.

In 1931, Godel showed that limits on deduction do exist. His incompleteness theorem showed that in any formal theory as strong as
Peano arithmetic (the elementary theory of natural numbers), there are true statements that are undecidable in the sense that they have no proof within the theory.

This fundamental result can also be interpreted as showing that some functions on the integers cannot be represented by an algorithm—that is, they cannot be computed. This motivated Alan Turing (1912–1954) to try to characterize exactly which functions are computable—capable of being computed.

This notion is actually slightly problematic because the notion of a computation or effective procedure really cannot be given a formal definition. However, the Church–Turing thesis, which states that the Turing machine (Turing, 1936) is capable of computing any computable function, is generally accepted as providing a sufficient definition.

Turing also showed that there were some functions that no Turing machine can compute. For example, no machine can tell in general whether a given program will return an answer on a given input or run forever. Although decidability and computability are important to an understanding of computation, the notion of tractability has had an even greater impact.

Roughly speaking, a problem is called intractable if the time required to solve instances of the problem grows exponentially with the size of the instances. The distinction between polynomial and exponential growth in complexity was first emphasized in the mid-1960s (Cobham, 1964; Edmonds, 1965).

It is important because exponential growth means that even moderately large instances cannot be solved in any reasonable time. Therefore, one should strive to divide the overall problem of generating intelligent behavior into tractable subproblems rather than intractable ones.

How can one recognize an intractable problem? The theory of NP-completeness, pioneered by Steven Cook (1971) and Richard Karp (1972), provides a method. Cook and Karp showed the existence of large classes of canonical combinatorial search and reasoning problems that are NP-complete.

Any problem class to which the class of NP-complete problems can be reduced is likely to be intractable. (Although it has not been proved that NP-complete problems are necessarily intractable, most theoreticians believe it.) These results contrast with the optimism with which the popular press greeted the first computers—“Electronic Super-Brains” that were “Faster than Einstein!”

Despite the increasing speed of computers, careful use of resources will characterize intelligent systems. Put crudely, the world is an
extremely large problem instance! Work in AI has helped explain why some instances of NP-complete problems are hard, yet others are easy (Cheeseman et al., 1991).

Besides logic and computation, the third great contribution of mathematics to AI is the theory of probability. The Italian Gerolamo Cardano (1501–1576) first framed the idea of probability, describing it in terms of the possible outcomes of gambling events. In 1654,
Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), in a letter to Pierre Fermat (1601–1665), showed how to predict the future of an unfinished gambling game and assign average payoffs to the gamblers.

Probability quickly became an invaluable part of all the quantitative sciences, helping to deal with uncertain measurements and incomplete theories. James Bernoulli (1654–1705), Pierre Laplace (1749–1827), and others advanced the theory and introduced new statistical methods.

Thomas Bayes (1702–1761), who appears on the front cover of this book, proposed a rule for updating probabilities in the light of new evidence. Bayes’ rule underlies most modern approaches to uncertain reasoning in AI systems.

Economics

The science of economics got its start in 1776 when Scottish philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. While the ancient Greeks and others had made contributions to economic thought, Smith was the first to treat it as a science, using the idea that economies can be thought of as consisting of individual agents maximizing their own economic well-being.

Most people think of economics as being about money, but economists will say that they are really studying how people make choices that lead to preferred outcomes. When McDonald’s offers a hamburger for a dollar, they are asserting that they would prefer the dollar and hoping that customers will prefer the hamburger.

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The mathematical treatment of “preferred outcomes” or utility was first formalized by L´ eon Walras (pronounced “Valrasse”) (1834-1910) and was improved by Frank Ramsey (1931) and later by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern in their book The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944).

Decision theory, which combines probability theory with utility theory, provides a formal and complete framework for decisions (economic or otherwise) made under uncertainty— that is, in cases where probabilistic descriptions appropriately capture the decision maker’s environment.

This is suitable for “large” economies where each agent need pay no attention to the actions of other agents as individuals. For “small” economies, the situation is much more like a game: the actions of one player can significantly affect the utility of another (either positively or negatively).

Von Neumann and Morgenstern’s development of game theory included the surprising result that, for some games, a rational agent should adopt policies that are (or at least appear to be) randomized. Unlike decision theory, game theory does not offer an unambiguous prescription for selecting actions.

For the most part, economists did not address the third question listed above, namely, how to make rational decisions when payoffs from actions are not immediate but instead result from several actions taken in sequence. This topic was pursued in the field of operations research, which emerged in World War II from efforts in Britain to optimize radar installations, and later found civilian applications in complex management decisions.

The work of Richard Bellman (1957) formalized a class of sequential decision problems called Markov decision processes. Work in economics and operations research has contributed much to our notion of rational agents, yet for many years AI research developed along entirely separate paths.

One reason was the apparent complexity of making rational decisions. The pioneering AI researcher Herbert Simon (1916–2001) won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1978 for his early work showing that models based on satisficing—making decisions that are “good enough,”
rather than laboriously calculating an optimal decision—gave a better description of actual human behavior (Simon, 1947). Since the 1990s, there has been a resurgence of interest in decision-theoretic techniques for agent systems (Wellman, 1995).

See Also: 10 Practical Uses of AI in Everyday Life

Neuroscience

Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, particularly the brain. Although the exact way in which the brain enables thought is one of the great mysteries of science, the fact that it does enable thought has been appreciated for thousands of years because of the evidence that strong blows to the head can lead to mental incapacitation. It has also long been known that human brains are somehow different; in about 335 B.C.

Aristotle wrote, “Of all the animals, man has the largest brain in proportion to his size.” Still, it was not until the middle of the 18th century that the brain was widely recognized as the seat of consciousness. Before then, candidate locations included the heart and the spleen.

Paul Broca’s (1824–1880) study of aphasia (speech deficit) in brain-damaged patients in 1861 demonstrated the existence of localized areas of the brain responsible for specific cognitive functions. In particular, he showed that speech production was localized to the
portion of the left hemisphere now called Broca’s area.

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By that time, it was known that the brain consisted of nerve cells or neurons, but it was not until 1873 that Camillo Golgi (1843–1926) developed a staining technique allowing the observation of individual neurons in the brain.

This technique was used by Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852–1934) in his pioneering studies of the brain’s neuronal structures. Nicolas Rashevsky (1936, 1938) was the first to apply mathematical models to the study of the nervous system.

The measurement of intact brain activity began in 1929 with the invention by Hans Berger of the electroencephalograph (EEG). The recent development of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (Ogawa et al., 1990; Cabeza and Nyberg, 2001) is giving neuroscientists unprecedentedly detailed images of brain activity, enabling measurements that correspond in interesting ways to ongoing cognitive processes.

These are augmented by advances in single-cell recording of neuron activity. Individual neurons can be stimulated electrically, chemically, or even optically (Han and Boyden, 2007), allowing neuronal input–output relationships to be mapped. Despite these advances, we are still a long way from understanding how cognitive processes actually work. The truly amazing conclusion is that a collection of simple cells can lead to thought, action, and consciousness or, in the pithy words of John Searle (1992), brains cause minds.

The only real alternative theory is mysticism: that minds operate in some mystical realm that is beyond physical science.

Brains and digital computers have somewhat different properties. Computers have a cycle time that is a million times faster than a brain. The brain makes up for that with far more storage and interconnection than even a high-end personal computer, although the largest supercomputers have a capacity that is similar to the brain’s. (It should be noted, however, that the brain does not seem to use all of its neurons simultaneously.)

Futurists make much of these numbers, pointing to an approaching singularity at which computers reach a superhuman level of performance (Vinge, 1993; Kurzweil, 2005), but the raw comparisons are not especially informative. Even with a computer of virtually unlimited capacity, we still would not know how to achieve the brain’s level of intelligence.

Also Read: AI In Fintech: Use Cases, Applications And Future Of AI In Financial Services

Psychology

The origins of scientific psychology are usually traced to the work of the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894) and his student Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920). Helmholtz applied the scientific method to the study of human vision, and his Handbook of Physiological Optics is even now described as “the single most important treatise on the physics and physiology of human vision”.

In 1879, Wundt opened the first laboratory of experimental psychology, at the University of Leipzig. Wundt insisted on carefully controlled experiments in which his workers would perform a perceptual or associative task while introspecting on their thought processes.

The careful controls went a long way toward making psychology a science, but the subjective nature of the data made it unlikely that an experimenter would ever disconfirm his or her own theories. Biologists studying animal behavior, on the other hand, lacked introspective data and developed an objective methodology, as described by H. S. Jennings (1906) in his influential work Behavior of the Lower Organisms.

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Applying this viewpoint to humans, the behaviorism movement, led by John Watson (1878–1958), rejected any theory involving mental processes on the grounds that introspection could not provide reliable evidence. Behaviorists insisted on studying only objective measures of the percepts (or stimulus) given to an animal and its resulting actions (or response). Behaviorism discovered a lot about rats and pigeons but had less success at understanding humans.

Cognitive psychology, which views the brain as an information-processing device, can be traced back at least to the works of William James (1842–1910). Helmholtz also insisted that perception involved a form of unconscious logical inference. The cognitive
viewpoint was largely eclipsed by behaviorism in the United States, but at Cambridge’s Applied Psychology Unit, directed by Frederic Bartlett (1886–1969), cognitive modeling was able to flourish.

The Nature of Explanation, by Bartlett’s student and successor Kenneth Craik (1943), forcefully reestablished the legitimacy of such “mental” terms as beliefs and goals, arguing that they are just as scientific as, say, using pressure and temperature to talk about gases, despite their being made of molecules that have neither.

Craik specified the three key steps of a knowledge-based agent:

  1. The stimulus must be translated into an internal representation,
  2. The representation is manipulated by cognitive processes to derive new internal representations, and
  3. These are in turn retranslated back into action.

He clearly explained why this was a good design for an agent:

If the organism carries a “small-scale model” of external reality and of its own possibleactions within its head, it is able to try out various alternatives, conclude which is the bestof them, react to future situations before they arise, utilize the knowledge of past events in dealing with the present and future, and in every way to react in a much fuller, safer, and more competent manner to the emergencies which face it.

(Craik, 1943)

After Craik’s death in a bicycle accident in 1945, his work was continued by Donald Broadbent, whose book Perception and Communication (1958) was one of the first works to model psychological phenomena as information processing. Meanwhile, in the United States, the development of computer modeling led to the creation of the field of cognitive science.

The field can be said to have started at a workshop in September 1956 at MIT. (We shall see that this is just two months after the conference at which AI itself was “born.”) At the workshop, George Miller presented The Magic Number Seven, Noam Chomsky presented Three Models of Language, and Allen Newell and Herbert Simon presented The Logic Theory Machine.

These three influential papers showed how computer models could be used to address the psychology of memory, language, and logical thinking, respectively. It is now a common (although far from universal) view among psychologists that “a cognitive theory should be
like a computer program” (Anderson, 1980); that is, it should describe a detailed information processing mechanism whereby some cognitive function might be implemented.

See Also: Applications of Artificial Intelligence

Computer engineering

For artificial intelligence to succeed, we need two things: intelligence and an artifact. The computer has been the artifact of choice. The modern digital electronic computer was invented independently and almost simultaneously by scientists in three countries embattled in World War II.

The first operational computer was the electromechanical Heath Robinson, built in 1940 by Alan Turing’s team for a single purpose: deciphering German messages. In 1943, the same group developed the Colossus, a powerful general-purpose machine based
on vacuum tubes.

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The first operational programmable computer was the Z-3, the invention of Konrad Zuse in Germany in 1941. Zuse also invented floating-point numbers and the first high-level programming language, Plankalk¨ ul.

The first electronic computer, the ABC, was assembled by John Atanasoff and his student Clifford Berry between 1940 and 1942 at Iowa State University. Atanasoff’s research received little support or recognition; it was the ENIAC, developed as part of a secret military project at the University of Pennsylvania by a team including John Mauchly and John Eckert, that proved to be the most influential forerunner of modern computers.

Since that time, each generation of computer hardware has brought an increase in speed and capacity and a decrease in price. Performance doubled every 18 months or so until around 2005, when power dissipation problems led manufacturers to start multiplying the number of CPU cores rather than the clock speed. Current expectations are that future increases in power will come from massive parallelism—a curious convergence with the properties of the brain.

Of course, there were calculating devices before the electronic computer. The first programmable machine was a loom, devised in 1805 by Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752–1834), that used punched cards to store instructions for the pattern to be woven. In the mid-19th century, Charles Babbage (1792–1871) designed two machines, neither of which he completed.

The Difference Engine was intended to compute mathematical tables for engineering and scientific projects. It was finally built and shown to work in 1991 at the Science Museum in London (Swade, 2000). Babbage’s Analytical Engine was far more ambitious: it included
addressable memory, stored programs, and conditional jumps and was the first artifact capable of universal computation.

Babbage’s colleague Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, was perhaps the world’s first programmer. (The programming language Ada is named after her.) She wrote programs for the unfinished Analytical Engine and even speculated that the machine could play chess or compose music.

AI also owes a debt to the software side of computer science, which has supplied the operating systems, programming languages, and tools needed to write modern programs (and papers about them).

But this is one area where the debt has been repaid: work in AI has pioneered many ideas that have made their way back to mainstream computer science, including time sharing, interactive interpreters, personal computers with windows and mice, rapid development environments, the linked list data type, automatic storage management, and key concepts of symbolic, functional, declarative, and object-oriented programming.

Also Read: Artificial Intelligence in The Workplace: Benefits, Examples, Roles and Adoption in 2022

Control theory and cybernetics

Ktesibios of Alexandria (c. 250 B.C.) built the first self-controlling machine: a water clock with a regulator that maintained a constant flow rate. This invention changed the definition of what an artifact could do. Previously, only living things could modify their behavior in response to changes in the environment.

Other examples of self-regulating feedback control systems include the steam engine governor, created by James Watt (1736–1819), and the thermostat, invented by Cornelis Drebbel (1572–1633), who also invented the submarine. The mathematical theory of stable feedback systems was developed in the 19th century.

The central figure in the creation of what is now called control theory was Norbert Wiener (1894–1964). Wiener was a brilliant mathematician who worked with Bertrand Russell, among others, before developing an interest in biological and mechanical control systems and their connection to cognition. Like Craik (who also used control systems as psychological models), Wiener and his colleagues Arturo Rosenblueth and Julian Bigelow challenged the behaviorist orthodoxy (Rosenblueth et al., 1943).

They viewed purposive behavior as arising from a regulatory mechanism trying to minimize “error”—the difference between current state and goal state. In the late 1940s, Wiener, along with Warren McCulloch, Walter Pitts, and John von Neumann, organized a series of influential conferences that explored the new mathematical and computational models of cognition.

Wiener’s book Cybernetics (1948) became a bestseller and awoke the public to the possibility of artificially intelligent machines. Meanwhile, in Britain, W. Ross Ashby (Ashby, 1940) pioneered similar ideas. Ashby, Alan Turing, Grey Walter, and others formed the Ratio Club for “those who had Wiener’s ideas before Wiener’s book appeared.”

Ashby’s Design for a Brain (1948, 1952) elaborated on his idea that intelligence could be created by the use of homeostatic devices containing appropriate feedback loops to achieve stable adaptive behavior. Modern control theory, especially the branch known as stochastic optimal control, has as its goal the design of systems that maximize an objective function over time.

This roughly matches our view of AI: designing systems that behave optimally. Why, then, are AI and control theory two different fields, despite the close connections among their founders? The answer lies in the close coupling between the mathematical techniques that were familiar to the participants and the corresponding sets of problems that were encompassed in each world view.

Calculus and matrix algebra, the tools of control theory, lend themselves to systems that are describable by fixed sets of continuous variables, whereas AI was founded in part as a way to escape from the these perceived limitations. The tools of logical inference and computation allowed AI researchers to consider problems such as language, vision, and planning that fell completely outside the control theorist’s purview.

Linguistics

In 1957, B. F. Skinner published Verbal Behavior. This was a comprehensive, detailed account of the behaviorist approach to language learning, written by the foremost expert in the field. But curiously, a review of the book became as well known as the book itself, and
served to almost kill off interest in behaviorism.

The author of the review was the linguist Noam Chomsky, who had just published a book on his own theory, Syntactic Structures.
Chomsky pointed out that the behaviorist theory did not address the notion of creativity in language—it did not explain how a child could understand and make up sentences that he or she had never heard before.

Chomsky’s theory—based on syntactic models going back to the Indian linguist Panini (c. 350 B.C.)—could explain this, and unlike previous theories, it was formal enough that it could in principle be programmed. Modern linguistics and AI, then, were “born” at about the same time, and grew up processing.

The problem of understanding language soon turned out to be considerably more complex than it seemed in 1957. Understanding language requires an understanding of the subject matter and context, not just an understanding of the structure of sentences. This might seem obvious, but it was not widely appreciated until the 1960s.

Much of the early work in knowledge representation (the study of how to put knowledge into a form that a computer can reason with) was tied to language and informed by research in linguistics, which was connected in turn to decades of work on the philosophical analysis of language.

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