John McCarthy (computer scientist)

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John McCarthy
John McCarthy Stanford.jpg
John McCarthy at a conference in 2006
Born(1927-09-04)September 4, 1927
DiedOctober 24, 2011(2011-10-24) (aged 84)
ResidenceUnited States
Alma materPrinceton University, California Institute of Technology
Known forArtificial intelligence, Lisp, circumscription, situation calculus
AwardsTuring Award (1971)
Computer Pioneer Award (1985)
IJCAI Award for Research Excellence (1985)
Kyoto Prize (1988)
National Medal of Science (1990)
Benjamin Franklin Medal (2003)
Scientific career
FieldsComputer technology
InstitutionsStanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dartmouth College, Princeton University
Doctoral advisorSolomon Lefschetz
Doctoral studentsRuzena Bajcsy
Ramanathan V. Guha
Barbara Liskov
Raj Reddy

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 spent most his career at Stanford University.[2] He received many accolades and honors, such as the 1971 Turing Award for his contributions to the topic of AI,[3] the United States National Medal of Science, and the Kyoto Prize.

Early life and education[edit]

John McCarthy was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1927, to an Irish immigrant father and a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant mother,[4] 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.[5] His mother died in 1957.[6]

McCarthy was exceptionally intelligent, and graduated from Belmont High School two years early.[7] 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.[8] McCarthy was suspended from Caltech for failure to attend physical education courses.[9] He then served in the US Army and was readmitted, receiving a B.S. in mathematics in 1948.[10]

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

McCarthy initially completed graduate studies at Caltech before moving to Princeton University. He received a Ph.D. in mathematics from the institution in 1951 as a student of Solomon Lefschetz.

Academic career[edit]

After short-term appointments at Princeton and 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.[11]

McCarthy championed mathematical logic for artificial intelligence.

Contributions in computer science[edit]

McCarthy in 2008

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" in 1955, and organized the famous Dartmouth conference in Summer 1956. This conference started AI as a field.[7][12] (Minsky later joined McCarthy at MIT in 1959.)

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.[13]

In 1958, McCarthy served on an ACM Ad hoc Committee on Languages that became part of the committee that designed ALGOL 60. In August 1959 he proposed the use of recursion and conditional expressions, which became part of ALGOL.[14]

Around 1959, he invented so-called "garbage collection" methods to solve problems in Lisp.[15][16]

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).[17] 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."[7]

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).[18]

Other activities[edit]

McCarthy often commented on world affairs on the Usenet forums. Some of his ideas can be found in his sustainability Web page,[19] 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."[20][21] He advised 30 PhD graduates.[22]

His 2001 short story "The Robot and the Baby"[23] farcically explored the question of whether robots should have (or simulate having) emotions, and anticipated aspects of Internet culture and social networking that have become increasingly prominent during ensuing decades.[24]

Personal life[edit]

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.[25][26]

McCarthy considered himself an atheist.[27][28] Raised as a Communist, he became a conservative Republican after a two-day visit to Czechoslovakia in 1968 after the Soviet invasion.[29] McCarthy died at his home in Stanford on October 24, 2011.[30]

Philosophy of artificial intelligence[edit]

In 1979 McCarthy wrote an article[31] 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,[32][12] disagreeing with McCarthy and taking the stance that machines cannot 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[edit]

Major publications[edit]

  • McCarthy, J. 1959. "Programs with Common Sense" at the Wayback Machine (archived October 4, 2013). 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" at the Wayback Machine (archived October 4, 2013). 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 at the Wayback Machine (archived August 25, 2013). 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. doi:10.1016/0004-3702(80)90011-9.
  • McCarthy, J (1986). "Applications of circumscription to common sense reasoning". Artificial Intelligence. 28 (1): 89–116. doi:10.1016/0004-3702(86)90032-9.
  • 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Jeffrey Mishlove
  2. ^ McCarthy, John. "Professor John McCarthy".
  3. ^ "John McCarthy – A.M. Turing Award Laureate".
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ "Leading academic who coined the term 'artificial intelligence'". The Irish Times. Retrieved 2016-01-28.
  6. ^ "History of Computers and Computing, Birth of the modern computer, Software history, LISP of John McCarthy". Retrieved 2016-01-28.
  7. ^ a b c Woo, Elaine (October 28, 2011). "John McCarthy dies at 84; the father of artificial intelligence". Los Angeles Times.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Williams, Sam (March 5, 2002). Arguing A.I.: The Battle for Twenty-first-Century Science. AtRandom. ISBN 081299180X.
  10. ^ Lester Earnest. "A. M. Turing award: John McCarthy, United States – 1971". ACM. Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  11. ^ Steven Levy, Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution,, p. 34
  12. ^ a b Roberts, Jacob (2016). "Thinking Machines: The Search for Artificial Intelligence". Distillations. 2 (2): 14–23. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  13. ^ McCarthy, John (1960). "Recursive Functions of Symbolic Expressions and Their Computation by Machine". Communications of the ACM. 3 (4): 184–195. doi:10.1145/367177.367199.
  14. ^ McCarthy, John (August 1959). "Letter to the editor". Communications of the ACM. 2 (8): 2–3. doi:10.1145/368405.1773349.
  15. ^ "Recursive functions of symbolic expressions and their computation by machine". Communications of the ACM. April 1960. Retrieved March 29, 2009.
  16. ^ "Recursive functions of symbolic expressions and their computation by machine, Part I". Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved November 24, 2013.
  17. ^ Garfinkel, Simson (1999). Abelson, Hal, ed. Architects of the Information Society, Thirty-Five Years of the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT. Cambridge: MIT Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-262-07196-3.
  18. ^ McCarthy, John (August 1, 1994). "Re: SPACE BRIDGE SHORT". Posting in Usenet newsgroup:
  19. ^ McCarthy, John (February 4, 1995). "Progress and its sustainability". Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved November 24, 2013.
  20. ^ "He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense" (Usenet newsgroup sci.environment search).
  21. ^ "John McCarthy, 84, Dies; Computer Design Pioneer". The New York Times. October 26, 2011.
  22. ^ "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.
  23. ^ McCarthy, John (June 28, 2001). "The Robot and the Baby". Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved November 24, 2013.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ Markoff, John (October 25, 2011). "John McCarthy, 84, Dies; Computer Design Pioneer". The New York Times.
  26. ^ "Biography of Carolyn Talcott". Stanford University. Archived from the original on 2013-12-02.
  27. ^ "About John McCarthy". Stanford University. Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved February 1, 2013.
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^ Earnest, Les. "Biographies of John McCarthy". Stanford University. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  30. ^ Myers, Andrew (October 25, 2011). "Stanford's John McCarthy, seminal figure of artificial intelligence, dies at 84". Stanford University News. Retrieved October 26, 2011.
  31. ^ McCarthy, J. (1979) Ascribing mental qualities to machines. In: Philosophical perspectives in artificial intelligence, ed. M. Ringle. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press.
  32. ^ Searle, John R (1980). "Minds, brains, and programs". Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 3 (3): 417–457. doi:10.1017/s0140525x00005756.
  33. ^ "President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details 1990". National Science Foundation. February 14, 2006. Retrieved September 27, 2012.
  34. ^ CHM. "John McCarthy – CHM Fellow Award Winner". Retrieved March 30, 2015.[1]
  35. ^ "AI's Hall of Fame" (PDF). IEEE Intelligent Systems. IEEE Computer Society. 26 (4): 5–15. 2011. doi:10.1109/MIS.2011.64.
  36. ^ "IEEE Computer Society Magazine Honors Artificial Intelligence Leaders". August 24, 2011. Retrieved September 18, 2011. Press release source: PRWeb (Vocus).
  37. ^ Beckett, Jamie (December 2, 2012). "Stanford School of Engineering names new engineering heroes". Stanford News. Retrieved December 2, 2012.

Further reading[edit]

  • Philip J. Hilts, Scientific Temperaments: Three Lives in Contemporary Science, Simon and Schuster, 1982. Lengthy profiles of John McCarthy, physicist Robert R. Wilson and geneticist Mark Ptashne.
  • Pamela McCorduck, Machines Who Think: a personal inquiry into the history and prospects of artificial intelligence, 1979, second edition 2004.
  • Pamela Weintraub, ed., The Omni Interviews, New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1984. Collected interviews originally published in Omni magazine; contains an interview with McCarthy.

External links[edit]

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