I just started an AI & Data Mining class, and the book. AI Application Programming, starts off with an overview of the history of AI. The first chapter deals with the history of AI from the 1940s to present. One particular statement stuck out at me:

[In the 60s] AI engineers overpromised and underdelivered...

What was the reason for the overconfidence? Was it because of mathematical prediction models showing that a breakthrough was around the corner, or due to the ever-increasing hardware capability to take advantage of?

  • 4
    Hubris problem is universal. Read 'Fooled by Randomness' for more details. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fooled_by_Randomness
    – Job
    Commented Sep 3, 2011 at 16:53
  • 1
    If your library has a copy of it, Doug Lenat's paper, "Why AM and EURISKO appear to work". Artificial Intelligence 23 (3): pp. 269–294. might be worth reading. (AM and EURISKO were Doug Lenat's own programs). This, however, is well after the 60s. Personally I think it was because some early projects were very successful, so it looked like many problems would be soluble using some simple techniques. Alas, this did not prove to be the case.
    – MZB
    Commented Sep 4, 2011 at 2:48
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    Problem was harder than expected. Much harder.
    – user1249
    Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 16:47
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    @Thorbjørn I don't know why, but I can imagine that being scrawled in the margins of a notebook of a scientist of engineer just before he leaves the office and reaches the tipping point, losing all sanity.
    – Thomas Owens
    Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 16:53
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    This isn't worth putting in an answer, but you should also look at the social context of those times. The western world, especially the U.S., had been through World War II and had developed a lot of technology that solved a lot of hard problems. There was a general sense that we could overcome any problem we put our minds to solving. Calling it arrogance or hubris is probably a little over the top; I'd go more for something like unbridled optimism.
    – Blrfl
    Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 18:58

11 Answers 11


My personal opinion is that it was due to hubris. There were some mighty big egos walking the halls of MIT, Stanford, etc. back in the 60s and 70s and they just knew they had cracked this problem. Right.

Although I wasn't part of that universe in those days, in the mid-to-late 80s I was working with similarity searching. Our work was initially based on research done by Gerard Salton at Cornell in the 60s, which used weighted attribute vectors to represent documents and queries. It actually was a useable approach, but when neural nets went down in flames (at least until they discovered back propagation), Salton's work was included with it because of similarities (pun intended) to neural nets. He was trying to do something different, but there were several years where he was lumped in with the rest.

Every time someone comes up with a solution for the Current Brick Wall™ they get very excited and declare AI to be a solved problem. Only it's not. Because behind that brick wall is another one. This cycle has repeated over, and over, and over again, and not just in AI. I firmly believe that all prospective computer scientists and engineers should be required to take a semester-long class in the History of Computing, with special emphasis on the number of Next Big Things™ that went up like rockets ... and then made a very large crater in the valley floor.

Addendum: I spent the Labor Day weekend with an old friend and we talked a little about this. Context — figuring out what that means, how to represent it, and then how to use it — emerged as possibly the single biggest hurdle to be cleared. And the longer you look at it, the bigger a hurdle it becomes. Humans are capable of amazing, near-instantaneous partial-pattern matching of "what is happening" against a vast store of "what has happened before," and then combining that knowledge of the past with the present situation to create a context in which understanding can lead to action. For example, we can use it as a powerful filter of "things we can/can't ignore" as we whiz down the Waldo Grade at 60 MPH with traffic 4 lanes abreast and separated by only 3 or 4 feet (or less!).

On the spectrum of stuff > data > information > knowledge > understanding > judgement we are still straining to get to the information/knowledge steps, and even that is limited to highly constrained domains of discourse.

  • 1
    AI is like a mountain range. We're somewhere in the foothills and we can see the peak we want to climb, but we've no idea what's over the next hill or how many more hills we have left to climb to reach our goal.
    – CdMnky
    Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 11:23
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    IMO, it can't happen without really sophisticated, highly generalized pattern recognition. Just reading about a lot of the stuff they've tried struck me as kind of naive or perhaps overly left-brained, which I get the sense dominated programming in general at least when I became aware of it in the '80s. Commented Jun 22, 2013 at 21:56

Quite simply, they massively underestimated the scale of the problem at hand, especially where combinatinatorial explosion is concerned. Many AI solutions work fine for "toy" samples, but fail hard when they scale up to human-level problems.

Arguably, they were also simply inexperienced. AI as a field had (relatively) only just been invented in terms of practical applications, so nobody had significant experience applying theory to anything.

  • I do not know much of this but I always thought that many of the features of Google are based on AI.Or is my bad understanding on this?
    – user10326
    Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 18:04
  • @user10326: They are. But I don't see what that has to do with the subject matter at hand- Google didn't exist for 30 years after the period in question.
    – DeadMG
    Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 19:53
  • Ok, but what I am saying is that they (Google) has used AI in a practical manner, right?I mean it may not be what they "envisioned" back then, but still can the features of Google be offered using a non-AI language?
    – user10326
    Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 19:55
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    @user10326, As I understand it, Google is using a system of very advanced guessing. Basically, it analyzes mountains of user activity and attempts to extrapolate patterns. The original vision of AI was to create a true digital mind that worked just like a human brain. In fact, the failure to even agree on what constitutes AI is one of the downfalls of the field.
    – jiggy
    Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 20:27
  • @user10326: Still failing to understand the relevance.
    – DeadMG
    Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 0:14

I can think of a couple of reasons.

AI experienced such rapid success with some of the toy problems tackled in the late 50s and early 60s, that they overestimated what they had accomplished. ELIZA and SHRDLU stunned folks despite being relatively simple programs. Unfortunately, a large part of what made those programs stunning was really just novelty. Nobody is very impressed by a conversation with ELIZA today, but at the time folks thought it was near miraculous.

Also, as problems are "solved" or at least become tractable, folks no long think of them as AI. Code optimization used to be an AI problem. Statistical learning budded out of AI into its very own speciality, and took speech recognition with it. As data mining becomes mainstream it will loose its association with AI. Over time AI forgets its successes and gets stuck holding on to the intractable and insoluble problems, and it ends up looking like a flop.

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    Good point on "if it's no longer magic (3), it's not AI any more". Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 17:15
  • But isn't statistical learning and data mining AI in principle?
    – user10326
    Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 18:45
  • @user10326, certainly most references still classify Machine Learning as a branch of AI, but I get the impression that a lot of folks working in ML would frown at you if you told them they worked in AI. I think they'd tell you that pragmatically, ML is a branch of statistics, and doesn't provide any particular insight into intelligence, artificial or otherwise. Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 22:17

I think people in the 60's used their own human experience to divide problems into "hard problems" and "easy problems": Things like winning chess, solving logical riddles, solving mathematical equations seem hard to us humans. Things like understanding natural languages or finding the outlines of objects in an image seem easy, because our brain does all the work without conscious effort. When we try to explain how we do those things, we come up with simple explanations like "English sentences always have the structure subject-predicate-object where subject can be a simple term or a phrase...", or "I'm looking for edges and connect them to object boundaries". Today we know things aren't that simple, but only because all the simple (and many not-so-simple) solutions have been tried and didn't work.

Besides, this fallacy didn't start in the 60's: There's centuries of research on how to solve those "hard problems" (heuristics, game theory, decision theory, mathematics, logics, etc.) but I'm, not sure anyone ever bothered to research how natural languages might be parsed before the 1950's.

And even today, you can regularly find questions on stackoverflow, where people ask how they can parse English sentences, estimate the age of a person in an image, judge if an image is "safe for work" or if two images show the same thing. I don't think the people who ask these questions suffer from too much hubris or arrogance: These problems just seem so simple, it's unbelievable that there is no simple algorithm to solve them.

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    I believe this is the correct answer rather than the hubris theory, which seems to strongly supported on this site. The things that we thought were incredibly hard for humans turned out to be relatively easy for machines, on the other hand incredibly simple things for humans are very hard for machines.
    – AlexC
    Commented Sep 8, 2011 at 20:53

AI has a long history of disappointments, but I think many critics often over-simplify what happened, such as with your quote "1960's engineers overpromised and underdelivered".

In the 60's, AI was the domain of a relative handful of researchers (the field wasn't really sufficiently developed yet to call it engineering), mostly at universities, and very few of them were accomplished programmers.

The sudden availability of computing machines in the 1950's had led to great expectations for automation, particularly in machine translation of natural language, playing chess, and similar problems. You might find some actual predictions of success from those days, but the promises inevitably came BEFORE anyone tackled one of those problems in depth. (Or, they wrongly assumed one success guaranteed another, such as expecting to be able to implement good chess playing after Samuel had so much success with checkers.)

Also, be wary of any claims of "they said", "they felt", "they thought", etc.; retrospective opinions (like this one!) are easy to throw around, while documented evidence of actual predictions by "experts" (those who actually tried solving a given problem) can be much harder to find.

Overpromising and undelivering has always been a symptom of software development, regardless of the specific field where the programming is applied. A major difficulty with AI is that non-trivial problems are beyond the capabilities of most engineers. For example, although Charles E. Grant's answer categorizes ELIZA and SHRDLU as "relatively simple", I'd say that's true only of ELIZA (which most first-year programming students could probably implement without much difficulty). On the other hand, SHRDLU is a large, extremely sophisticated program that most programmers would have a very difficult time inventing, let along implementing. Indeed, two teams of university students couldn't even get the source code fully running again, and SHRDLU-like abilities are still hard to find nowadays, over 40 years later.

Since AI is probably one of the least understood and most intractable problems where computers can be applied, overall I'd say progress in AI has generally been at par for the course. There are still high expectations, and our hardware speed and capacities have increased tremendously since the 60's, but I'd say engineers' abilities and understanding of AI aren't improving all that much, so a holy grail like passing the Turing test is still probably a long way off, and overpromising and underdelivering will probably continue for some time.

  • Re: Turing Test: I read about a Georgia Tech teaching assistant program which most students cannot tell is an "AI". They might not have been looking for that, but it certainly didn't jump out at them. I think that general conversation will be a solved problem pretty soon. I watched someone play with a new Google Echo thing (whatever it is called) recently. Pitiful, but how long will it stay that way, with millions of monkeys feeding it samples of conversation?
    – user251748
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 17:21

I think the reason was arrogance. Had I been an Engineer in the 60s working on AI, I would have been pretty arrogant myself.

I think in order to accomplish great things, you have to reach for great things. So overpromising is not necessarily a bad thing as long as you don't exceed the limit. Scientist today are promising things I don't believe will be possible, but if they don't reach for that, we'll miss out on what will be accomplished as a result.


It can be very hard to get somewhere when you don't know where you're going.

If we had some sort of reasonable explanation of what intelligence is and how it works, maybe we'd have a shot at effectively mimicking it. The Turing test is fascinating and useful, but is probably not sufficient to help us model true intelligence. For all we know, a "model" of intelligence might not be sufficient for true intelligence either.

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    +1 for the first sentence. Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 17:57
  • Maybe we are not intelligent enough to be able to understand intelligence, or even a model of it. But we could build a crummy model, then have it work on itself...
    – user251748
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 17:24

Well, I would say it's more or less the same thing that is happening with OWL right now. Look around, and try to draw parallels.

Sounds good on paper, seems to work well on toy problems, gets incredibly complicated on most real data.


In addition to the good answers given, two observations:

Some quotes of the day seem to imply that many of the researchers were thinking that the trivial solutions could be scaled up once faster computers were designed. For some kind of learning systems this was very true, but for the kind of thing I think the OP is referring to it really didn't get any better at scale.

Researchers at the time had a very low estimate of the complexity of the human mind (focus on ideas like Turing test, the idea that people only use a small percentage of their brain ever, etc). AI at the level of a simple animal has been achieved by some measures as things scaled up, but the jump to a human level AI was a lot bigger than expected. This has lead some researchers to try learning baby systems and other growth/evolution based simulations as an attempt to bridge that gap.

  • A simple brain (insect, fish, reptile) can handle behavior well, but handling reasoning is a different problem. So I think that AI will soon be able to converse about a problem domain, but not have anything meaningful to contribute or be able to solve novel problems. The interesting area is where small brains (birds) can do complex things like respond to conversational input and invent amusing things to do (Parrot that mimicked doorbell sound to watch people go answer the door, then made a laughing sound).
    – user251748
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 17:30

One reason was the success that we were having ELSEWHERE in the 1960s. We had just launched into space, and would soon land a man on the moon. We had just discovered cures for polio, and other major diseases.

But "artificial intelligence" was a different animal from the "engineering" problems we faced then. It was a "reasoning," rather than "mechanical" problem.

In short, AI (in the 1960s) was an idea "whose time had not yet come." It took more development, in subsequent decades, before it became as accessible as the other problems.


Another reason may be that mastering a computer / writing computer programs gives us little control freaks a feeling of omnipotence - in fact, one creates little universes, albeit closed ones.

This plus the lack of philosophical/epistemological education and naive trust in simple explanations like "Intelligence is nothing but ...." can lead to hubris.

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