John McCarthy & AI: Biography & Books

Instructor: Lyna Griffin

Lyna has tutored undergraduate Information Management Systems and Database Development. She has a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering and a Masters degree in Information Technology.

In this lesson, we will learn about John McCarthy, one of the founding pioneers of Artificial Intelligence. We will examine his life, works, and general impact on the Artificial Intelligence world.

Artificial Intelligence - The Beginning

Technology has been driving humanity for a long time. Science and technology strive to achieve all sorts of advancements and developments but the most elusive of them all has been the science of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Conceptually it will be mankind's greatest achievement if attained in the full sense of the word - making machines that actually learn, not just imitate human behavior.

No one can dispute the ability of machines to process logic commands, but the technology to build a machine that can actually think is the elusiveness of AI. The term artificial intelligence has been recorded to be first coined by respected computer science pioneer, John McCarthy during the first academic conference on the subject, the mythic Dartmouth conference back in 1956. AI was then defined as the science and engineering in creating intelligent machines.

John McCarthy


John McCarthy was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1927. He and his family lived through the Great Depression in the 1930s. Job losses caused them to move around and to eventually relocate to Los Angeles. His brilliance was becoming apparent but his health hindered regular schooling. He was self-taught in his early academic life. When his health permitted, he entered public school and he was able to skip many grades due to his self-study. He was able to graduate two years early. He attained a B.S. in Mathematics at the California Institute of Technology in 1948 and earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Princeton University in 1951. He began and ended his career at Stanford University with time spent at Dartmouth and MIT in between. While he started out in mathematics, he moved to the newly created computer science department at Stanford in 1963 and remained there until his retirement.

Artificial Intelligence

John McCarthy's watershed moment in AI came after listening to a group of leading researchers in cognitive science at the Hixon Symposium on Cerebral Mechanisms in Behavior in 1948. During the symposium discussions on the comparison of the computer to the human brain triggered his interests in developing machines to think like humans. By the 1950s other scientists were also working on AI, but McCarthy's distinction was in his use of mathematical logic as a language holding the knowledge of the computer as well as the prospective reasoning capabilities of the computer. His methodology of developing AI led to the development of the computer language LISP and the logistic approach to AI.

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