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John McCarthy

Brain in a Box

Photo: Ben Claassen III, License: N/A

Ben Claassen III

No one invented the internet. Much like the internet itself, its birth was an amorphous collaboration of people and organizations over time, each contributing something to a whole the purpose of which still remains somewhat elusive. There was Tim Berners-Lee, the man who’s responsible for the World Wide Web. Before that there was ARPANET, a defense project designed to wire computers together to a mainframe. And before that there was John McCarthy.

McCarthy, who died Oct. 24 at the age of 84 from heart disease complications, coined the term “artificial intelligence,” a concept that emerged from the same seeds that eventually spawned the internet. Though he mistakenly dismissed the personal computer as little more than a toy, McCarthy was among the first to envision interconnected computers and technology that could “think” rather than just compute. (Think Watson’s reasoning powers instead of Deep Blue’s chess match.) Among his earliest accomplishments is time-sharing, the concept of multiple users accessing a mainframe simultaneously for general-purpose use. And all of this in the 1950s and ’60s.

Born in 1927 in Boston to an Irish immigrant father and a Lithuanian Jewish mother, McCarthy saw early exposure to political climes. Both parents were members of the Communist party, an affiliation he would entertain briefly as a doctoral candidate at Princeton. (He later told an interviewer that the two other members of the Communist group were a gardener and a cleaning lady.) As the ’60s approached and the Vietnam War ensued, McCarthy grew disillusioned with left-wing ideas and became increasingly conservative.

Like many of our most admired, McCarthy created a stir early, finishing high school in two years and getting expelled from CalTech as an undergraduate, though he later returned to finish his degree after a stint in the Army. Over the course of his career, he worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Stanford, the latter of which became his working home for nearly 40 years until his retirement in 2000.

Over the course of those years, McCarthy created LISP (List Processing Language), now the second-oldest computer language still in use (after Fortran) and an early ancestor of programs like JavaScript. He also created the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL), a Pentagon-backed project to create working artificial intelligence within a decade.

Not all of McCarthy’s visionary ideas aligned with present-day truth. Rather than the personal computer that’s standard today, McCarthy envisioned a system in which users paid a monthly fee to access a shared computer terminal. But McCarthy, widely remembered by those who knew him as one who had strong beliefs about the future and worked determinedly toward realizing them, saw a fast-moving, interconnected digital age during a tumultuous and wholly analogue decade, creating a generation whose livelihoods and lifestyles are worlds away from his own.

People Who Died 2011
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