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
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
Institutions 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)
Kyoto Prize (1988)
National Medal of Science (1990)
Benjamin Franklin Medal (2003)

John McCarthy (September 4, 1927 – October 24, 2011)[1] was an American computer scientist and cognitive scientist. 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.

Personal 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,[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.

McCarthy was exceptionally intelligent, and graduated from Belmont High School two years early.[3] He 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, when McCarthy was accepted into Caltech in 1944, he was able to skip the first two years of mathematics.[4]

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.[5] It was at Caltech that he attended a lecture by John von Neumann that inspired his future endeavors. McCarthy initially continued his studies at Caltech. He received a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Princeton University in 1951 as a student of Solomon Lefschetz.

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.[6][7] McCarthy considered himself an atheist.[8][9]

Career in computer science[edit]

After short-term appointments at Princeton, Stanford University, Dartmouth, and MIT, he became a full professor at Stanford in 1962, where he remained until his retirement at the end of 2000. By the end of his early days at MIT he was already affectionately referred to as "Uncle John" by his students.[10]

McCarthy championed mathematical logic for artificial intelligence. In 1956, he organized the first international conference to emphasize artificial intelligence. One of the attendees was Marvin Minsky, who later became one of the main AI theorists and joined McCarthy at MIT in 1959.[3] During the autumn of 1956, McCarthy won an MIT research fellowship. He 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. Around 1959, he invented so-called "garbage collection" methods to solve problems in Lisp.[11][12] Based on the lambda calculus, Lisp soon became the programming language of choice for AI applications after its publication in 1960.[13] He helped to motivate the creation of Project MAC at MIT, but left MIT for Stanford University in 1962, where he helped establish the Stanford AI Laboratory, for many years a friendly rival to Project MAC.

In 1961, he was the first to suggest publicly (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."[3]

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).[14]

McCarthy often commented on world affairs on the Usenet forums. Some of his ideas can be found in his sustainability Web page,[15] 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 which included a license plate guard on his BMW car noting: those who don't speak math are doomed to speak nonsense (paraphrased). Quite likely the number plate may have read literally "He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense" which was the Usenet .sig he used for years, notably on group sci.environment.[16] He advised 30 PhD graduates.[17]

His 2001 short story "The Robot and the Baby"[18] 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.[19]

Awards and honors[edit]

Major publications[edit]

  • McCarthy, J. 1959. "Programs with Common Sense". 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". 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. 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.
  • McCarthy, J. 1986. "Applications of circumscription to common sense reasoning". Artificial Intelligence 28(1):89-116.
  • 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. ^ Myers, Andrew (October 25, 2011). "Stanford's John McCarthy, seminal figure of artificial intelligence, dies at 84". Stanford University News. Retrieved October 26, 2011. 
  2. ^ Shasha, Dennis; Lazere, Cathy (1998). Out of Their Minds: The Lives and Discoveries of 15 Great Computer Scientists. Springer. p. 23. 
  3. ^ a b c Woo, Elaine (October 28, 2011). John McCarthy dies at 84; the father of artificial intelligence. Los Angeles Times.
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ Lester Earnest. "A. M. Turing award: John McCarthy, United States - 1971". ACM. Retrieved September 5, 2012. 
  6. ^ Markoff, John (October 25, 2011). "John McCarthy, 84, Dies; Computer Design Pioneer". The New York Times. 
  7. ^ "Biography of Carolyn Talcott". Stanford University. 
  8. ^ "About John McCarthy". Stanford University. Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved February 1, 2013. 
  9. ^ 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." 
  10. ^ Steven Levy, Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution,, p. 34 
  11. ^ "Recursive functions of symbolic expressions and their computation by machine" 3 (4). Communications of the ACM. April 1960. Retrieved March 29, 2009. 
  12. ^ "Recursive functions of symbolic expressions and their computation by machine, Part I". Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved November 24, 2013. 
  13. ^ McCarthy, John (1960). "Recursive Functions of Symbolic Expressions and Their Computation by Machine". CACM 3 (4): 184–195. doi:10.1145/367177.367199. 
  14. ^ McCarthy, John (August 1, 1994). "Re: SPACE BRIDGE SHORT". Posting in Usenet newsgroup:
  15. ^ McCarthy, John (February 4, 1995). "Progress and its sustainability". Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved November 24, 2013. 
  16. ^ "He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense" (Usenet newsgroup sci.environment search). 
  17. ^ "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. 
  18. ^ McCarthy, John (June 28, 2001). "The Robot and the Baby". Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved November 24, 2013. 
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ "President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details 1990". National Science Foundation. February 14, 2006. Retrieved September 27, 2012. 
  21. ^ "AI's Hall of Fame". IEEE Intelligent Systems (IEEE Computer Society) 26 (4): 5–15. 2011. doi:10.1109/MIS.2011.64.  edit
  22. ^ "IEEE Computer Society Magazine Honors Artificial Intelligence Leaders". August 24, 2011. Retrieved September 18, 2011.  Press release source: PRWeb (Vocus).
  23. ^ Beckett, Jamie (12/02/2012). "Stanford School of Engineering names new engineering heroes". Stanford News. Retrieved 12/02/2012. 

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