John McCarthy and the Raise of Artificial Intelligence

John McCarthy
(1927 – 2011)
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On September 4, 1927, American computer scientist and cognitive scientist John McCarthy was born. He was one of the founders of the discipline of artificial intelligence. He coined the term “artificial intelligence” (AI), developed the Lisp programming language family, significantly influenced the design of the ALGOL programming language, popularized timesharing, and was very influential in the early development of AI.

John McCarthy graduated from high school two years early and already studied the textbooks of MIT in the field of mathematics. He was accepted at Caltech in 1944, but the first years did not go as smooth as expected. The brilliant student skipped the required P.E courses and was suspended. After serving the US Army , he was again readmitted and even studied under John von Neumann. McCarthy earned his degree at Caltech and finished his PhD in mathematics at Princeton[1].

McCarthy worked at Dartmouth in the 1950s and in this period, he authored a proposal for a two-month, 10-person summer research conference on “artificial intelligence“. It was the first time, the term was used in a publication. In proposing the conference, McCarthy wrote, “The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it“. Marvin Minsky also attended the conference and later on, he became one of the main AI theorists and joined McCarthy at MIT in 1959. McCarthy invented the computer programming language LISP. It is the second oldest programming language after FORTRAN and still in use today in the field of artificial intelligence. He also served on the committee that designed ALGOL, which became a very influential programming language by introducing many new constructs now in common use [1,2].

In the later 1950s, McCarthy began developing a concept for computer time-sharing in order to improve the efficiency of distributed computing and predated the era of cloud computing by decades. In the same period, McCarthy authored a paper titled, “Programs with Common Sense”. He laid out the principles of his programming philosophy and describing “a system which is to evolve intelligence of human order”. The scientist hosted a series of four simultaneous computer chess matches carried out via telegraph against rivals in Russia in 1966. The matches lasted over a couple of months and McCarthy lost two of the matches and drew two. He later pointed out, that board games like chess were essential for the development of artificial intelligence [2].

During his career, McCarthy co-founded the MIT Artificial Intelligence Project and what became the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, serving as director at Stanford from 1965 until 1980. He was named the Charles M. Pigott Professor at the Stanford School of Engineering in 1987, before stepping down in 1994. The Association of Computing Machinery honored McCarthy with the A. M. Turing Award in 1971 and he received the Kyoto Prize in 1988 and the National Medal of Science in 1990, the nation’s highest technical award [2,3].

At yovisto, you may be interested in a talk by John McCarthy on the Philosophy of AI.

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