OBITUARY: John McCarthy (1927-2011)

John Markoff (NY Times October 25, 2011)


[We are reproducing this obit not only because John McCarthy was a great scientist but also because of two other reasons: 1. In late 1970’s some of us used to produce a monthly magazine New India Bulletin and one of us (Daya Varma) used to go to Boston to have the material type set by Deepak Kapur using MIT computer with which McCarthy’s name is associated. 2. McCarthy comes from a communist family. Ed.)


John McCarthy, a computer scientist who helped design the foundation of  today’s Internet-based computing and who is widely credited with coining  the term for a frontier of research he helped pioneer, Artificial Intelligence, or A.I., died on Monday at his home in Stanford, Calif. He

was 84.


The cause was complications of heart disease, his daughter Sarah McCarthy  said.


Dr. McCarthy´s career followed the arc of modern computing. Trained as a  mathematician, he was responsible for seminal advances in the field and  was often called the father of computer time-sharing, a major development  of the 1960s that enabled many people and organizations to draw  simultaneously from a single computer source, like a mainframe, without  having to own one.


By lowering costs, it allowed more people to use computers and laid the  groundwork for the interactive computing of today.


Though he did not foresee the rise of the personal computer, Dr. McCarthy  was prophetic in describing the implications of other technological  advances decades before they gained currency.


“In the early 1970s, he presented a paper in France on buying and selling  by computer, what is now called electronic commerce,” said Whitfield  Diffie, an Internet security expert who worked as a researcher for Dr.  McCarthy at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.


And in the study of artificial intelligence, “no one is more influential  than John,” Mr. Diffie said.


While teaching mathematics at Dartmouth in 1956, Dr. McCarthy was the  principal organizer of the first Dartmouth Conference on Artificial  Intelligence.


The idea of simulating human intelligence had been discussed for decades,  but the term “artificial intelligence” – originally used to help raise  funds to support the conference – stuck.


In 1958, Dr. McCarthy moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),  where, with Marvin Minsky, he founded the Artificial Intelligence  Laboratory. It was at M.I.T. that he began working on what he called List  Processing Language, or Lisp, a computer language that became the standard  tool for artificial intelligence research and design.


Around the same time he came up with a technique called garbage  collection, in which pieces of computer code that are not needed by a  running computation are automatically removed from the computer’s random  access memory.


He developed the technique in 1959 and added it to Lisp. That technique is  now routinely used in Java and other programming languages.


His M.I.T. work also led to fundamental advances in software and operating  systems. In one, he was instrumental in developing the first time-sharing  system for mainframe computers.


The power of that invention would come to shape Dr. McCarthy´s worldview  to such an extent that when the first personal computers emerged with  local computing and storage in the 1970s, he belittled them as toys.


Rather, he predicted, wrongly, that in the future everyone would have a  relatively simple and inexpensive computer terminal in the home linked to  a shared, centralized mainframe and use it as an electronic portal to the  worlds of commerce and news and entertainment media.


Dr. McCarthy, who taught briefly at Stanford in the early 1950s, returned  there in 1962 and in 1964 became the founding director of the Stanford  Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or SAIL. Its optimistic, space-age  goal, with financial backing from the Pentagon, was to create a working

artificial intelligence system within a decade.


Years later he developed a healthy respect for the challenge, saying that  creating a “thinking machine” would require “1.8 Einsteins and one-tenth  the resources of the Manhattan Project.”


Artificial intelligence is still thought to be far in the future, though  tremendous progress has been made in systems that mimic many human skills,  including vision, listening, reasoning and, in robotics, the movements of  limbs. From the mid-´60s to the mid-´70s, the Stanford lab played a vital  role in creating some of these technologies, including robotics and  machine-vision natural language.


In 1972, the laboratory drew national attention when Stewart Brand, the  founder of The Whole Earth Catalog, wrote about it in Rolling Stone  magazine under the headline “SPACEWAR: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death  Among the Computer Bums.” The article evoked the esprit de corps of a  group of researchers who had been freed to create their own virtual  worlds, foreshadowing the emergence of cyberspace. “Ready or not,  computers are coming to the people,” Mr. Brand wrote.


Dr. McCarthy had begun inviting the Homebrew Computer Club, a Silicon  Valley hobbyist group, to meet at the Stanford lab. Among its growing  membership were Steven P. Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, who would go on to  found Apple. Mr. Wozniak designed his first personal computer prototype,  the Apple 1, to share with his Homebrew friends.


But Dr. McCarthy still cast a jaundiced eye on personal computing. In the  second Homebrew newsletter, he suggested the formation of a “Bay Area Home  Terminal Club,” to provide computer access on a shared Digital Equipment  computer. He thought a user fee of $75 a month would be reasonable.


Though Dr. McCarthy would initially miss the significance of the PC, his  early thinking on electronic commerce would influence Mr. Diffie at the  Stanford lab. Drawing on those ideas, Mr. Diffie began thinking about what  would replace the paper personal check in an all-electronic world.


He and two other researchers went on to develop the basic idea of public  key cryptography, which is now the basis of all modern electronic banking  and commerce, providing secure interaction between a consumer and a  business.


A chess enthusiast, Dr. McCarthy had begun working on chess-playing  computer programs in the 1950s at Dartmouth. Shortly after joining the  Stanford lab, he engaged a group of Soviet computer scientists in an  intercontinental chess match after he discovered they had a chess-playing  computer. Played by telegraph, the match consisted of four games and  lasted almost a year. The Soviet scientists won.


John McCarthy was born on Sept. 4, 1927, into a politically engaged family  in Boston. His father, John Patrick McCarthy, was an Irish immigrant and a  labor organizer.


His mother, the former Ida Glatt, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, was  active in the suffrage movement. Both parents were members of the  Communist Party. The family later moved to Los Angeles in part because of  John´s respiratory problems.


He entered the California Institute of Technology in 1944 and went on to  graduate studies at Princeton, where he was a colleague of John Forbes  Nash Jr., the Nobel Prize-winning economist and subject of Sylvia Nasar´s  book “A Beautiful Mind,” which was adapted into a movie.


At Princeton, in 1949, he briefly joined the local Communist Party cell,  which had two other members: a cleaning woman and a gardener, he told an  interviewer. But he quit the party shortly afterward.


In the ´60s, as the Vietnam War escalated, his politics took a  conservative turn as he grew disenchanted with leftist politics.


In 1971 Dr. McCarthy received the Turing Award, the most prestigious given   by the Association of Computing Machinery, for his work in artificial  intelligence. He was awarded the Kyoto Prize in 1988, the National Medal  of Science in 1991 and the Benjamin Franklin Medal in 2003.


Dr. McCarthy was married three times. His second wife, Vera Watson, a  member of the American Women’s Himalayan Expedition, died in a climbing   accident on Annapurna in 1978.


Besides his daughter Sarah, of Nevada City, Calif., he is survived by his  wife, Carolyn Talcott, of Stanford; another daughter, Susan McCarthy, of  San Francisco; and a son, Timothy, of Stanford.


He remained an independent thinker throughout his life. Some years ago,  one of his daughters presented him with a license plate bearing one of his  favorite aphorisms: “Do the arithmetic or be doomed to talk nonsense.”

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