Milestones | DOI: 10.1145/2063176.2063187
John McCarthy, 1927–2011
Winner of the 1971 A.M. Turing Award, John McCarthy was a founder
of artificial intelligence and inventor of the Lisp programming language.
THe fIeLd of artificial intelli- gence (AI) was founded at a conference at Dartmouth College in 1956, with John McCarthy as one of its influential attendees. McCarthy subsequently expanded on the notion of
logical AI, writing what appears to be
the first paper on the topic, “Programs
With Common Sense,” in 1958.
In the paper, he laid out for the first
time the specifics of how a program
might “know” things and reason with
them, according to Stuart Russell,
professor of computer science at the
University of California, Berkeley. “
McCarthy developed what he considered
to be the right way to build intelligent
systems,” says Russell.
McCarthy passed away on Oct. 23 in
Stanford, CA, at 84, and had served on
the Stanford faculty for four decades.
He received the A.M. Turing Award
in 1971 for his work in AI, the Kyoto
Prize in 1988, and the U.S. National
Medal of Science in 1991.
left PhotograPh by heCtor garCIa MolIna, rIght CoPyrIght stanford unIversIty
While he was most celebrated for
his AI work (including coining the term
“artificial intelligence”) and for creating the Lisp programming language,
he was also one of the first to investigate how to rigorously prove properties
of programs. He invented abstract syntax; created the nonmonotonic logic
technique called circumscription; and
invented the garbage collector. He also
made original contributions to ideas
for space travel, including what he
called the “space fountain,” “a kind of
space elevator,” says Pat Hayes, once
McCarthy’s research assistant and now
senior research scientist at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, FL.
“His students included pioneers in
logic programming, AI planning, several branches of theoretical computer
science, robotics, machine learning,
formal ontologies, knowledge representation, cognitive science, formal
in 1966, John McCarthy hosted a series of four simultaneous computer chess matches via telegraph against rivals in the soviet union.
philosophy, and much more,” says
Hayes. “John was Descartes reincarnat-
ed in the 21st century, but with a better
sense of humor.”
Indeed, in his 2001 short story, “The
Robot and the Baby,” McCarthy clev-
erly explores the question of whether
robots should have emotions.
McCarthy was “a very, very clear
thinker regardless of the topic—poli-
tics, sociology, the water supply in the
San Andreas Basin, anything,” recalls
Hayes. “When you brought up a sub-
ject, you knew right away he’d already
done the math and worked out the
numbers. And if he found someone
who was more knowledgeable than he
on a subject, he’d take them aside, buy
them a drink, and start grilling them.
He was like a human vacuum cleaner
for information from experts.”
McCarthy was in the habit of post-
ing many of his thoughts on the Web.
“Essentially, they were a long list of
his thesis ideas that were free for the
taking,” says Russell. “He also created a
Q&A page with a collection of questions
he’d been asked over and over again over
the years…along with the correct an-
swers so that he didn’t have to be both-
ered answering them one more time.”
Another of McCarthy’s important
contributions to computing involved
time sharing. Although not the first
to conceive the idea, his was the first
project to implement a time-sharing
system at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology (MIT) in 1957 on a modi-
fied IBM 704 computer.
Paul hyman is a science and technology writer based in
great neck, ny.
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