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Palo Alto Weekly

Community Pulse - November 11, 2011


John McCarthy

John McCarthy, a retired Stanford University computer science professor, 84, died in his sleep Oct. 24, 2011.

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."

He 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A memorial service will be planned for a future date.