John McCarthy (computer scientist)

John McCarthy

John McCarthy at a conference in 2006
Born (1927-09-04)September 4, 1927
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died October 24, 2011(2011-10-24) (aged 84)
Stanford, California, U.S.
Residence United States
Nationality American
Fields Computer technology

Stanford University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology;

Dartmouth College; Princeton University
Alma mater Princeton University; California Institute of Technology
Doctoral advisor Solomon Lefschetz
Doctoral students Ruzena Bajcsy
Randall Davis
Cordell Green
Ramanathan V. Guha
Barbara Liskov
Robert Moore
Francis Morris
Raj Reddy
Donald Kaplan
Eyal Amir
Aarati Parmar Martino
Known for Artificial intelligence; Lisp; Circumscription; Situation calculus
Notable awards Turing Award (1971)
Computer Pioneer Award (1985)
IJCAI Award for Research Excellence (1985)
Kyoto Prize (1988)
National Medal of Science (1990)
Benjamin Franklin Medal (2003)

John McCarthy (September 4, 1927 – October 24, 2011) was an American computer scientist and cognitive scientist. McCarthy was one of the founders of the discipline of artificial intelligence.[1] 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.

McCarthy received many accolades and honors, such as the Turing Award for his contributions to the topic of AI, the United States National Medal of Science, and the Kyoto Prize.

Early life and education

John McCarthy was born in Boston, Massachusetts 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 obliged to relocate frequently during the Great Depression, until McCarthy's father found work as an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in Los Angeles, California. His father came from the fishing village of Cromane in County Kerry, Ireland.[3] His mother died in 1957.[4]

McCarthy was exceptionally intelligent, and graduated from Belmont High School two years early.[5] McCarthy was accepted into Caltech in 1944.

McCarthy showed an early aptitude for mathematics; during his teens he taught himself college mathematics by studying the textbooks used at the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech). As a result, he was able to skip the first two years of mathematics at Caltech.[6] McCarthy was suspended from Caltech for failure to attend physical education courses; he then served in the US Army and was readmitted, receiving a B.S. in Mathematics in 1948.[7]

It was at Caltech that he attended a lecture by John von Neumann that inspired his future endeavors.

McCarthy initially did graduate studies at Caltech, but moved to Princeton University. He received a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Princeton University in 1951 as a student of Solomon Lefschetz.

Academic career

After short-term appointments at Princeton, Stanford University, McCarthy became an assistant professor at Dartmouth in 1955.

A year later, McCarthy moved to MIT as a research fellow in the autumn of 1956.

In 1962, McCarthy became a full professor at Stanford, where he remained until his retirement in 2000. By the end of his early days at MIT he was already affectionately referred to as "Uncle John" by his students.[8]

McCarthy championed mathematical logic for artificial intelligence.

Contributions in computer science

John McCarthy is one of the "founding fathers" of artificial intelligence, together with Marvin Minsky, Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon. McCarthy coined the term "artificial intelligence", and organized the famous Dartmouth Conference in summer 1956. This conference started AI as a field.[5] (Marvin Minsky later joined McCarthy at MIT in 1959.)

In autumn 1956, McCarthy served on the committee that designed ALGOL, which became a very influential programming language by introducing many new constructs now in common use.

In 1958, he proposed the advice taker, which inspired later work on question-answering and logic programming.

John McCarthy invented Lisp in the late 1950s. Based on the lambda calculus, Lisp soon became the programming language of choice for AI applications after its publication in 1960.[9]

Around 1959, he invented so-called "garbage collection" methods to solve problems in Lisp.[10][11]

He helped to motivate the creation of Project MAC at MIT when he worked there.

At Stanford University, he helped establish the Stanford AI Laboratory, for many years a friendly rival to Project MAC.

In 1961, he was perhaps the first to suggest publicly the idea of utility computing, in a speech given to celebrate MIT's centennial: that computer time-sharing technology might result in 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 during the late 1960s, but faded by the mid-1990s. However, since 2000, the idea has resurfaced in new forms (see application service provider, grid computing, and cloud computing).

In 1966, McCarthy and his team at Stanford wrote a computer program used to play a series of chess games with counterparts in the Soviet Union; McCarthy's team lost two games and drew two games (see Kotok-McCarthy).

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

McCarthy is also credited with developing an early form of time-sharing. His colleague Lester Earnest told the Los Angeles Times: "The Internet would not have happened nearly as soon as it did except for the fact that John initiated the development of time-sharing systems. We keep inventing new names for time-sharing. It came to be called servers.... Now we call it cloud computing. That is still just time-sharing. John started it."[5]

In 1982 he seems to have originated the idea of the "space fountain", a type of tower extending into space and kept vertical by the outward force of a stream of pellets propelled from Earth along a sort of conveyor belt which returns the pellets to Earth (payloads would ride the conveyor belt upward).[12]

Other activities

McCarthy often commented on world affairs on the Usenet forums. Some of his ideas can be found in his sustainability Web page,[13] which is "aimed at showing that human material progress is desirable and sustainable". McCarthy was a serious book reader, an optimist, and a staunch supporter of free speech. His best Usenet interaction is visible in rec.arts.books archives. And John actively attended SF Bay Area dinners in Palo Alto of r.a.b. readers called rab-fests. John went on to defend free speech criticism involving European ethnic jokes at Stanford.

McCarthy saw the importance of mathematics and mathematics education. His Usenet .sig for years was, "He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense"; his license plate cover read, similarly, "Do the arithmetic or be doomed to talk nonsense."[14][15] He advised 30 PhD graduates.[16]

His 2001 short story "The Robot and the Baby"[17] farcically 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 during the ensuing decade.[18]

Personal life

McCarthy was married three times. His second wife was Vera Watson, a programmer and mountaineer who died in 1978 attempting to scale Annapurna I as part of an all-women expedition organised by Arlene Blum. He later married Carolyn Talcott, a computer scientist at Stanford and later SRI International.[19][20]

McCarthy considered himself an atheist.[21][22] Raised as a Communist, after experiencing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 he became a conservative Republican.[23] McCarthy died at his home in Stanford on October 14, 2011.[24]

Philosophy of artificial intelligence

In 1979 McCarthy wrote an article[25] entitled "Ascribing Mental Qualities to Machines." In it he wrote, "Machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs, and having beliefs seems to be a characteristic of most machines capable of problem solving performance." In 1980 the philosopher John Searle responded with his famous Chinese Room Argument,[26] disagreeing with McCarthy and taking the stance that machines can not have beliefs simply because they are not conscious (he says that machines lack 'intentionality', a term commonly used in the philosophy of mind). A vast amount of literature has been written in support of one side or the other.

Awards and honors

Major publications

See also


  1. Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Jeffrey Mishlove
  2. Shasha, Dennis; Lazere, Cathy (1998). Out of Their Minds: The Lives and Discoveries of 15 Great Computer Scientists. Springer. p. 23. Retrieved 2016-02-27.
  3. "Leading academic who coined the term 'artificial intelligence'". The Irish Times. Retrieved 2016-01-28.
  4. "History of Computers and Computing, Birth of the modern computer, Software history, LISP of John McCarthy". Retrieved 2016-01-28.
  5. 1 2 3 Woo, Elaine (October 28, 2011). John McCarthy dies at 84; the father of artificial intelligence. Los Angeles Times.
  6. Hayes, Patrick J.; Morgenstern, Leora (2007). "On John McCarthy's 80th Birthday, in Honor of his Contributions". AI Magazine. Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. 28 (4): 93–102. Retrieved November 24, 2010.
  7. Lester Earnest. "A. M. Turing award: John McCarthy, United States - 1971". ACM. Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  8. Steven Levy, Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution,, p. 34
  9. McCarthy, John (1960). "Recursive Functions of Symbolic Expressions and Their Computation by Machine". CACM. 3 (4): 184–195. doi:10.1145/367177.367199.
  10. "Recursive functions of symbolic expressions and their computation by machine". Communications of the ACM. April 1960. Retrieved March 29, 2009.
  11. "Recursive functions of symbolic expressions and their computation by machine, Part I". Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved November 24, 2013.
  12. McCarthy, John (August 1, 1994). "Re: SPACE BRIDGE SHORT". Posting in Usenet newsgroup:
  13. McCarthy, John (February 4, 1995). "Progress and its sustainability". Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved November 24, 2013.
  14. "He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense" (Usenet newsgroup sci.environment search).
  15. "John McCarthy, 84, Dies; Computer Design Pioneer". The New York Times. October 26, 2011.
  16. "Tree of John McCarthy students for the Computer History Exhibits". April 21, 2012. Archived from the original on December 9, 2013. Retrieved November 24, 2013.
  17. McCarthy, John (June 28, 2001). "The Robot and the Baby". Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved November 24, 2013.
  18. Thomson, Cask J. (October 26, 2011). "The Death of TRUE Tech Innovators D. Ritchie & J. McCarthy – Yet the Death of Steve Jobs Overshadows All.". WordsWithMeaning blog.
  19. Markoff, John (October 25, 2011). "John McCarthy, 84, Dies; Computer Design Pioneer". The New York Times.
  20. "Biography of Carolyn Talcott". Stanford University. Archived from the original on 2013-12-02.
  21. "About John McCarthy". Stanford University. Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved February 1, 2013.
  22. McCarthy, John (March 7, 2003). "Commentary on World, US, and scientific affairs". Stanford University. Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved February 1, 2013. By the way I'm an atheist.
  23. Earnest, Les. "Biographies of John McCarthy". Stanford University. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  24. Myers, Andrew (October 25, 2011). "Stanford's John McCarthy, seminal figure of artificial intelligence, dies at 84". Stanford University News. Retrieved October 26, 2011.
  25. McCarthy, J. (1979) Ascribing mental qualities to machines. In: Philosophical perspectives in artificial intelligence, ed. M. Ringle. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press.
  26. Searle, John. R. (1980) Minds, brains, and programs. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3 (3): 417-457
  27. "President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details 1990". National Science Foundation. February 14, 2006. Retrieved September 27, 2012.
  28. CHM. "John McCarthy — CHM Fellow Award Winner". Retrieved March 30, 2015.
  29. "AI's Hall of Fame" (PDF). IEEE Intelligent Systems. IEEE Computer Society. 26 (4): 5–15. 2011. doi:10.1109/MIS.2011.64.
  30. "IEEE Computer Society Magazine Honors Artificial Intelligence Leaders". August 24, 2011. Retrieved September 18, 2011. Press release source: PRWeb (Vocus).
  31. Beckett, Jamie (December 2, 2012). "Stanford School of Engineering names new engineering heroes". Stanford News. Retrieved December 2, 2012.

Further reading

External links

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Preceded by
Lucy Suchman
Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science
Succeeded by
Richard M. Karp
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