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John McCarthy

AI Basics
John McCarthy

John McCarthy is known to be the Father of Artificial Intelligence. He was the first person to coin the phrase “Artificial Intelligence” back in 1956. His belief that computers can reason like humans and his work to see that happen has done much to strengthen the development of AI. He is best known as the inventor of the first non-procedural programming language. He named his language LISP (for List Processing) because he found it efficient to use a data structure called a list to handle both a program’s code and its data. Even today, it is still the favored programming language for Artificial Intelligence research.

Educational Career

John McCarthy was born in Boston to a family who believed advances in technology would be good for humanity. He quickly became interested in mathematics and science. Even in high school he would purchase college-level calculus books to work on, completing them easily in his spare time.

In 1944, he enrolled in the California Institute of Technology (the college from which he bought his calculus books). Later that year however, he was drafted to fight in the Second World War. He returned to CIT the following year and earned both his Bachelor and his Master degrees in mathematics there.

After hearing a speech by John von Neumann about machines that can create copies of themselves, he became interested in intelligent machines. He enrolled in Princeton, more so because von Neumann and Turing were there, to work on his doctoral degree.

McCarthy spent some time teaching at Dartmouth, but now he is a professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford University. His website is at

Notable Contributions

Mid-1950’s: In asking for project funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, John McCarthy coined the term “Artificial Intelligence” to describe his theory that a machine could seem to have intelligent thought.

1956: He used this grant while he was teaching at Dartmouth to sponsor the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence. This conference wasn’t as productive as McCarthy had hoped. It was, however, the first group attempt to create intelligent machinery and definitively marked AI to be a separate field of study.

Late 1950’s: In order to create a computer that played games and accomplished other intelligent tasks, John McCarthy developed the programming language LISP. LISP manipulates symbols, rather than using arithmetic on numbers like most languages. It lists instructions, using “and” and “or” statements to help the computer reach logical deductions. LISP and its variations like Scheme are still commonly used in expert and natural language systems.

Late 1980’s: Microcomputers became powerful enough to run LISP. Prior to this, LISP applications could only have been run on special LISP computers. This opened the language to be used by everyone.

2006: LISP is the second oldest programming language still in use (the oldest being FORTRAN)

Other Accomplishments

John McCarthy has won the ACM’s A. M. Turing Award in 1971 and the IEEE Computer Society’s Pioneer Award in 1985.

McCarthy has published the book Formalizing Common Sense along with hundreds of papers relating to computers and Artificial Intelligence.

He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering as well as the National Academy of Science.

Posted December 21, 2006 by hackerzx in 1337 speak

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