“Father Of Artificial Intelligence” John McCarthy Dies

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John McCarthy (1927-2011), Computer Scientist & Inventor of Lisp Programming Language

John McCarthy (born September 4, 1927, in Boston, Massachusetts; died October 24th, 2011 [1]), is an American computer scientist and cognitive scientist who received the Turing Award in 1971 for his major contributions to the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
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He was responsible for the coining of the term “Artificial Intelligence” in his 1955 proposal for the 1956 Dartmouth Conference and is the inventor of the Lisp programming language.

John McCarthy
John McCarthy at a summit in 2006

Early life and education

John McCarthy was born in Boston on September 4, 1927 to an Irish immigrant father and a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant mother, [2] John Patrick and Ida Glatt McCarthy. The family was forced to move frequently during the Depression, until McCarthy’s father found work as an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in Los Angeles, California.

McCarthy showed an early aptitude for mathematics; in his teens he taught himself mathematics by studying the textbooks used at the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech). As a result, when he was accepted into Caltech the following year, he was able to skip the first two years of mathematics.[3]

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Receiving a B.S. in Mathematics in 1948, McCarthy initially continued his studies at Caltech. He received a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Princeton University in 1951 under Solomon Lefschetz.

McCarthy was married to Vera Watson a programmer and mountaineer who died attempting to scale Annapurna I.

Career in computer science

After short-term appointments at Princeton, Stanford University, Dartmouth, and MIT, he became a full professor at Stanford in 1962, where he remained until his retirement at the end of 2000. By the end of his early days at MIT, he would already be affectionately referred to as “Uncle John”.[4]

McCarthy championed mathematical logic for Artificial Intelligence. In 1958, he proposed the advice taker, which inspired later work on question-answering and logic programming. Around 1959, he invented garbage collection to solve problems in Lisp.[5][6] Based on the lambda calculus, Lisp rapidly became the programming language of choice for AI applications after its publication in 1960.[7] He helped to motivate the creation of Project MAC at MIT, but left MIT for Stanford University in 1962, where he helped set up the Stanford AI Laboratory, for many years a friendly rival to Project MAC.

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In 1961, he was the first to publicly suggest (in a speech given to celebrate MIT’s centennial) that computer time-sharing technology might lead to a future in which computing power and even specific applications could be sold through the utility business model (like water or electricity). This idea of a computer or information utility was very popular in the late 1960s, but faded by the mid-1970s as it became clear that the hardware, software and telecommunications technologies of the time were simply not ready. However, since 2000, the idea has resurfaced in new forms (see application service provider, grid computing, and cloud computing.)

From 1978 to 1986, McCarthy developed the circumscription method of non-monotonic reasoning.

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In 1982 he appears to have originated the idea of the space fountain which was further examined by Roderick Hyde.[8]

McCarthy often commented on world affairs on the Usenet forums. Some of his ideas can be found in his sustainability web page,[9] which is “aimed at showing that human material progress is desirable and sustainable”.

His 2001 short story The Robot and the Baby[10] lightheartedly explored the question of whether robots should have (or simulate having) emotions, and anticipated aspects of Internet culture and social networking that became more prominent in the ensuing decade.

Awards and honors

Major publications

  • McCarthy, J. 1959. Programs with Common Sense. In Proceedings of the Teddington Conference on the Mechanization of Thought Processes, 756-91. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
  • McCarthy, J. 1960. Recursive functions of symbolic expressions and their computation by machine. Communications of the ACM 3(4):184-195.
  • McCarthy, J. 1963a A basis for a mathematical theory of computation. In Computer Programming and formal systems. North-Holland.
  • McCarthy, J. 1963b. Situations, actions, and causal laws. Technical report, Stanford University.
  • McCarthy, J., and Hayes, P. J. 1969. Some philosophical problems from the standpoint of artificial intelligence. In Meltzer, B., and Michie, D., eds., Machine Intelligence 4. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 463-502.
  • McCarthy, J. 1977. Epistemological problems of artificial intelligence. In IJCAI, 1038-1044.
  • McCarthy, J. 1980. Circumscription: A form of non-monotonic reasoning. Artificial Intelligence 13(1-2):23-79.
  • McCarthy, J. 1986. Applications of circumscription to common sense reasoning. Artificial Intelligence 28(1):89-116.
  • McCarthy, J. 1990. Generality in artificial intelligence. In Lifschitz, V., ed., Formalizing Common Sense. Ablex. 226-236.
  • McCarthy, J. 1993. Notes on formalizing context. In IJCAI, 555-562.
  • McCarthy, J., and Buvac, S. 1997. Formalizing context: Expanded notes. In Aliseda, A.; van Glabbeek, R.; and Westerstahl, D., eds., Computing Natural Language. Stanford University. Also available as Stanford Technical Note STAN-CS-TN-94-13.
  • McCarthy, J. 1998. Elaboration tolerance. In Working Papers of the Fourth International Symposium on Logical formalizations of Commonsense Reasoning, Commonsense-1998.
  • Costello, T., and McCarthy, J. 1999. Useful counterfactuals. Electronic Transactions on Artificial Intelligence 3(A):51-76
  • McCarthy, J. 2002. Actions and other events in situation calculus. In Fensel, D.; Giunchiglia, F.; McGuinness, D.; and Williams, M., eds., Proceedings of KR-2002, 615-628.
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