R.I.P. John McCarthy, artificial intelligence pioneer

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 25 October 2011

A lot has been written about the foundational work done by the artificial intelligence pioneer John McCarthy, who died suddenly at home Sunday night (October 23, 2011), and I'm not going to try to replicate it here. For his professional life, see Jack Schofield at the Guardian or John Markoff at the NY Times (who has captured some of the man as well as the scientist). I came along too late to appreciate his work as it developed, although I did interview him in 2008, in which he expressed the hope that he'd live to 102 so that, in 2029, he could laugh at Ray Kurzweil for predicting we'd have human-level artificial intelligence by then.

Wendy M Grossman

That was skepticism born of 50-plus years of hard work. "I thought we'd have the whole thing wrapped up in six months," he said when I asked if he'd expected AI to take this long.

He was extremely skeptical about the idea of the Singularity. Nonsense, he called it, bluntly. He was equally unimpressed with Watson, IBM's Jeopardy champion, saying by email in February that he was "entirely unconvinced" by the news reports.

After retiring in 2001, he spent a lot of time writing for and maintaining his Web site, intended to make all his papers accessible and also give him an outlet to write about topics that interested him, such as sustainability. It may surprise a lot of people that McCarthy was raised a Communist; his politics moved progressively to the right during his lifetime. By the time I knew him, it would have been hard to find a political topic he could agree on with a woolly liberal.

But McCarthy didn't need people to agree with him; he needed them to be smart and interesting – and fortunately for him, his immediate family was full of those. He liked an argument, didn't suffer fools, did not bother with small talk (or, as Roger Ebert writes that Gene Siskel called it, "lip flap"), and I think would have loathed being in the sort of family where people nod politely in order to keep the peace and privately roll their eyes. His interests were broad and wide-ranging, and so was his taste in reading. He particularly liked the novels of Georgette Heyer, and you'd be as likely to find those alongside his Kindle as you would spare copies of Logicomix. Earlier this year, he emailed looking for help understanding a John Masefield poem: what was this reference to "cheap tin trays"? Were cheap tin trays manufactured on the east coast of England in 1903, and if so, where?

I wish I could remember more about the experiments he conducted on his children. Nothing dangerous – just child development stuff. I know one of these things involved a paper bag, but the details escape me.

There seems to have been an impression that for the last few years he was bedridden, wheelchair-bound, or had Parkinson's. None of these things are true. In recent years his health was certainly failing, and his lessened ability to walk kept him housebound a lot of the time; he also had a tremor that was easily confused with the shakes of a progressive illness. Which leads to a favorite story, from 2006, when I spent part of the spring working in Palo Alto. We were driving up to San Francisco together to have dinner with his daughter and son-in-law, and the distractions of conversation, coupled with his tremor acting up, made his driving terrifyingly erratic. I suggested I drive. Fine with him: he liked not having to do mundane things like drive. To my horror, he didn't wait to find a convenient layby or a safe location. He just pulled over at the side of a crowded divided highway full of a high-speed rush hour crowd of traffic and immediately got out of the car. With trucks whooshing past with inches to spare, he began shuffling sideways around the car leaving the door wide open. Fortunately, nothing hit him (or the car), and the grandfather of AI lived a few years longer to make a few more conference appearances, collaborate on some papers, and convene the 50th anniversary of the Dartmouth conference that kicked the whole thing off.

John McCarthy: September 4, 1927 – October 24, 2011.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) (but please turn off HTML).