Leading academic who coined the term 'artificial intelligence'


JOHN McCARTHY:JOHN McCARTHY of Stanford University, California, died on October 24th at the age of 84. His father, also John, was born and raised in Cromane, Co Kerry. He went to London where he met and married Ida Glatt, from Lithuania.

They visited Ireland for a brief stay before going to Boston where their son, John, was born in 1927.

During the Depression, the family moved to Los Angeles where his father found work as an organiser with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers.

While still at school, John studied the calculus book used by students at Caltech. This enabled him to skip the first two years of his undergraduate degree. He graduated from Caltech in 1948 and was awarded a PhD from Princeton in 1951.

In 1955 he taught mathematics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and was the principal organiser of a conference titled “artificial intelligence” (AI), a term which he coined.

He became one of the leading figures in the field for the next five decades.

He was appointed assistant professor of Communication Science at MIT in 1958, where he set up the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with Marvin Minsky.

Here he invented the list processing language, LISP. It processed symbols as well as numbers and is still widely used today for AI and other tasks.

One of the features which made it useful on computers with small memories (32k 36-bit words was large at the time) was his invention of “garbage collection”, a form of automatic memory management which took the task of recovering memory no longer used from the programmer.

This made it possible to write large LISP programs in a small space. He also played a very important role in the development of time-sharing systems the prototype for which was Project MAC (Multiple Access Computer) at MIT. This provided access by several users simultaneously over a network and is a concept widely used today. The internet is a development of it.

In 1962 he moved to Stanford University, California, as professor of computer science and founded the Stanford University Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Much of his work was very theoretical and based on mathematical logic. He became emeritus professor in 2001.

In a report in 2007, he defined artificial intelligence: “It is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs. It is related to the similar task of using computers to understand human intelligence, but AI does not have to confine itself to methods that are biologically observable.”

In 1966, he and his students developed a program to play chess, challenging a Russian team who had also written a program. The matches lasted several months. MCarthy’s program lost two games and drew two.

His connection with Ireland stemmed from a chance meeting between his first cousin, Mary Miller, who was living in Pisa, Italy, at the time, and John’s colleagues from Stanford University. Subsequently, he visited Ireland in 1975 and gave a lecture in the mathematics department in Trinity College Dublin. During this trip, he visited his cousins in Israel and Co Kerry.

In 1992, Trinity awarded him an honorary ScD at the ceremony to mark the quatercentenary of the college. On this occasion he gave a public lecture on “The little thoughts of thinking machines”. He also gave a talk to the department of computer science on LISP.

He is survived by his third wife, Carolyn Talcott, daughters Sarah and Susan, who have frequently visited Ireland, and a son, Timothy Talcott.

John McCarthy: born September 4th, 1927; died October 24th, 2011