Pioneers in Tech: Happy birthday to AI pioneer John McCarthy
This week’s Pioneers in Tech takes a look at John McCarthy, the technology pioneer who coined the term “AI” back in 1955.
Born Sept. 4, 1927, McCarthy first used “AI” in his proposal for the 1956 Dartmouth Conference, a gathering of innovative computer scientists and the first conference on what we now know as artificial intelligence. Calling it a “conference” was a bit of stretch—with only six attendees, it was more of a workshop—but the gathering was dedicating to finding ways to make machines reason like humans.
In 1958, McCarthy developed the AI programming language LISP, which is short for LISt Processing. The language’s sentence-based structure made it well suited for the type of machine-based reasoning involved in AI. LISP continued to be used for AI applications well into the 2010s. It even formed the basis for voice recognition tools such as Siri.
McCarthy’s innovations were not limited to AI. He also proposed the concept of timesharing. This was developed at MIT and allowed multiple users to work simultaneously on a mainframe computer.
From Boston to Stanford: The academic journey of John McCarthy
Although born in Boston, McCarthy spent much of childhood in Los Angeles, where his father was a union organizer in the garment industry. He earned his undergraduate degree at the California Institute of Technology and his PhD at Princeton. After time at Dartmouth and MIT, he returned to California in 1962. There he was a professor at Stamford University until his retirement. At Stanford, he founded the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, known as SAIL, and he invited the Homebrew Computer Club to meet at SAIL.
McCarthy passed away in 2011. This Stanford website offers a collection of his writings on AI, world affairs, politics, and more, as well as his forays into science fiction. His numerous accolades include the 1971 ACM Turing Award, the 1988 Kyoto Prize, the 1990 National Medal of Science and the 2003 Benjamin Franklin Medal and he was named a Computer History Fellow in 1999.
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