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John McCarthy: The Father of AI

You’ve heard of artificial intelligence: if you haven’t, what rock have you been hiding under and can I please have an invite?

It has been in the news a lot recently, with driverless cars and delivery drones making massive headway for the earth that has been envisioned in popular culture for decades, we still don’t have hovercars, but maybe soon.

But where did the term artificial intelligence come from?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is an area of computer science that emphasises the creation of intelligent machines that work and react like humans – think Terminator, Ex Machina, and the like. The term itself was coined by computer scientist John McCarthy, who is known as the “Father of AI” thanks to his thought into the discipline and technology. He also played a prominent role in defining the field.

The same field that spawned machines like IBM’s Deep Blue and Watson, and Google’s DeepMind - all champions in Chess, Jeopardy! and Go respectively – is now heading the next generation of technological advancements including the aforementioned driverless cars and pizza-delivering drones.

But, back to John McCarthy, the man who envisioned it all and became one of the founding fathers of the discipline.

McCarthy came from a modest background, born in America to an Irish immigrant father and a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant mother: his intelligence was clear from an early age and after graduating high school two years early, McCarthy was accepted into the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), one of the top 10 universities in the world aged 17.

His time at Caltech inspired his work in artificial intelligence after he attended a lecture by Hungarian-American mathematician and computer scientist John Von Neumann. This became the catalyst for his work in AI; including the development of the Lisp programming language family, the design of the ALGOL programming language, timesharing (what we now know as cloud computing) and other early developments in AI.

In 1971, he received the Turing Award, recognised as the highest distinction in computer science, for his contributions to AI, contributions which we are seeing the fruition of in the modern day.

The year after he originally created the “neutral” term of artificial intelligence, McCarthy was one of the principle organisers of the Dartmouth Conference in Summer 1956, where AI started as a recognised field of computer science. The project was a two-month, 10-man study of artificial intelligence to determine whether machines could be made to simulate intelligence – I think it’s safe to say he was right!