Stanford professor John McCarthy dies at 84


John McCarthy, a retired Stanford University computer science professor who coined the term "artificial intelligence," has died.

McCarthy died in his sleep Monday morning. He was 84.

McCarthy, who retired in 2000 after teaching 38 years at Stanford, was a major figure in the field of artificial intelligence.

He first proposed the term as the title for a computer conference at Dartmouth College back in the 1950s.

At the time, he wrote, "The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it."

McCarthy designed the LISP programming language in 1958 while a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The language is still in use today.

He also developed the idea of computer time sharing around that time.

"A bunch of people decided that time-sharing was clearly the way to work with a computer, but nobody could figure out how to make it work for general purpose computing -- nobody except John," said Les Earnest, a senior research scientist emeritus at Stanford and an early collaborator at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) with McCarthy.

McCarthy started Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 1965 and directed it until 1980.

McCarthy garnered attention in 1966 by hosting a series of four simultaneous computer chess matches carried out via telegraph against rivals in Russia. The matches, played with two pieces per side, lasted several months. McCarthy lost two of the matches and drew two. "They clobbered us," recalled Earnest.

Chess and other board games, McCarthy would later say, were the "drosophila of artificial intelligence," a reference to the scientific name for fruit flies that are similarly important in the study of genetics.

McCarthy would later develop the first "hand-eye" computer system in which a computer was able to see real 3D blocks via a video camera and control a robotic arm to complete simple stacking and arrangement exercises.

Professionally, McCarthy was known for intense focus, a quality easily misunderstood. "John was very focused on what he was working on at all times. If you engaged him in a topic he was not interested in, he would sometimes turn away without saying a thing," said Earnest. "It was his way of staying on focus."

Ed Feigenbaum, professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford and a colleague recruited by McCarthy in the 1960s, recalled a softer side: "He could be blunt, but John was always kind and generous with his time, especially with students, and he was sharp until the end. He was always focused on the future. Always inventing, inventing, inventing. That was John."

One project that McCarthy returned to near the end of his life was a paper he had written in the early 1970s exploring the practicality of interstellar travel. He wrote: "We show that interstellar travel is entirely feasible with only small improvements in present technology provided travel times of several hundred to several thousand years are accepted."

McCarthy was known as well for wanting to bring scientific rigor to every aspect of life and for his wry, often self-deprecating sense of humor. This humor was perhaps best exemplified in a personal philosophy he termed "radical optimism" -- a positive outlook so strong that McCarthy believed that "everything would be OK even if his advice were not followed," said daughter Susan McCarthy. "And, he was a loving father, too."

He received the A.M. Turing Award of the Association for Computing Machinery in 1971 and was president of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence in the 1980s.

He received the National Medal of Science in 1990, and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences.

McCarthy was born in Boston in 1927 and graduated from high school in Los Angeles. He earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the California Institute of Technology and a PhD in mathematics from Princeton University.

He was named a distinguished alumnus by Caltech.

He is survived by his third wife, Carolyn Talcott of Stanford; two daughters, Susan McCarthy of San Francisco and Sarah McCarthy of Nevada City; a son, Timothy Talcott McCarthy of Stanford; a brother, Patrick, of Los Angeles; two grandchildren, Kitty McCarthy of San Francisco and Joseph Gunther of New York City; and his first wife, Martha Coyote. McCarthy's second wife, Vera Watson, died in 1978 in a mountain-climbing accident attempting to scale Annapurna in Nepal.

A memorial service will be planned for a future date.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Couple brings Chinese zongzi to Mountain View
By Elena Kadvany | 0 comments | 5,748 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 6 comments | 1,328 views

Goodbye Food Waste!
By Laura Stec | 2 comments | 1,195 views

Can cities handle our traffic mess? I doubt it!
By Diana Diamond | 16 comments | 1,116 views

"Better" Dads and "Re-invigorated" Moms: Happier Couples
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,045 views


Register today!

‚ÄčOn Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More