John McCarthy, 1927–2011

The father of artificial intelligence

In the mid-1950s, mathematician John McCarthy issued a call for research papers on “automata studies,” but the dull phrase drew few responses. So McCarthy, then an assistant professor at Dartmouth College, came up with a more enticing description for his idea. He called it artificial intelligence. Over the next 40 years, his pioneering research in this new field would lead to the use of robotics in everything from assembly lines to space exploration. “John’s work was the key to robotics,” said former Stanford professor Lester Earnest. “As a result, very soon now we’ll be seeing robotic taxis and robotic buses on our streets.”

“McCarthy showed genius at a young age,” said the Los Angeles Times. Born in Boston to Irish and Lithuanian immigrant parents, he was a sickly child and started school a year late. After his family moved to Los Angeles for his health, he began teaching himself calculus from college textbooks. At the age of 16, he was already attending graduate classes at the nearby California Institute of Technology.

He found his life’s work at a 1948 Caltech symposium that brought together some of the world’s leading experts on computer science, mathematics, and the brain. Listening to speakers like British mathematician Alan Turing, McCarthy realized “that machines could be made to think like humans,” said The Washington Post. His attempts at creating a smart computer yielded numerous breakthroughs.

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While working at the Massachu­setts Institute of Technology in the late 1950s, “he invented what he called the List Processing Language, or Lisp, which is still the language of choice for AI researchers,” said the San Francisco Chronicle. And in the early 1960s he developed time-sharing—a system that allowed many people to share data by linking to a central computer. Time-sharing is now considered “the forerunner of networking, the Internet, and, ultimately, cloud computing.”

At the time of his death, McCarthy was working on a new language called Elephant. “He was always focused on the future,” said Ed Feigen­baum, a professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford and a former colleague of McCarthy’s. “Always inventing, inventing, inventing.”

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