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Remembering The Father Of Artificial Intelligence


You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

John McCarthy, the American mathematician known universally as the father of Artificial Intelligence, died last Monday at his home in Palo Alto. He was 84.

WEEKEND EDITION's Math Guy, Keith Devlin, knew McCarthy and has this remembrance.

KEITH DEVLIN, BYLINE: I first got to know John McCarthy when I arrived at Stanford as a visiting professor in 1987. He was 60 years old at that time, with a towering and, to me, somewhat daunting, reputation.

Our relationship began when he was in the audience at a research seminar I gave. He challenged some of my claims and we argued for a while. His mind was extremely quick and I thought I'd lost the debate, but later that evening I received an email from him with the title "Semi-Apology."

He had thought more about what I had said, and decided it had some merit, though he still disagreed with me - typical McCarthy, I was to learn. After that John and I became good, though not close, friends.

McCarthy's debating skills stood him in good stead during the early part of his career. He had arrived at Dartmouth College as a young professor in 1955, and shortly thereafter organized a small summer research conference there on what he called artificial intelligence.

The goal was to build a machine, a computer that could think. Though others had speculated along similar lines, that conference is widely regarded as marking the beginning of the field of artificial intelligence.

Certainly, that term artificial intelligence, which he introduced, caught the public attention. And the conference, together with his evident brilliance, undoubtedly helped establish AI, as it became known, as a respected and well-funded field of computer science research.

By the 1980s, when I first met him, most people in the field had reached the conclusion that the original dream - or to some a specter - of a digital computer that could think like a person, was unlikely to be achieved.

Instead, AI had morphed into a discipline that develops computers which, while not thinking in the sense portrayed by the sinister HAL of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film "2001," did act in intelligent ways. Today, AI systems are in many of the devices in our everyday lives; from household appliances to automobiles, from medical equipment to video games.

My colleagues and I will remember John for his sharp mind, his love of intellectual arguments, and his great sense of humor.

SIMON: Our Math Guy, Keith Devlin, remembering John McCarthy, who died last Monday at his home in Palo Alto.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Keith Devlin