This week we offer you Ways In Which Geeks Are Different From Regular People #314,159, with reactions to the name McCarthy. For the average person, McCarthy refers to a famous American politician, Joseph McCarthy, who made his name stirring up Communist paranoia in the 1950s. For geeks, the name McCarthy brings up thoughts of AI or, more specifically, computer science pioneer John McCarthy, who coined the term artificial intelligence.

Put another way, for most people, McCarthy equates with the Red Scare; for geeks, McCarthy equates with HAL 9000’s glowing eye that, while scary, was an entirely different kind of red.

McCarthy is one of those textbook mathematics prodigies — literally, he taught himself advanced math in high school by borrowing used textbooks from Caltech — who leaves a profound impact on the discipline. Enamored with formal logic, McCarthy lobbied for its use in the development of artificial intelligence. To that end, he created the Lisp programming language — arguably still the preferred AI coding language — and helped set up both the precursor to the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL).

All of that earns McCarthy a place in most every academic text on artificial intelligence ever written, but he can also take credit for the name of the entire field. The first formal use of the term artificial intelligence was in the title of a 1956 academic project, the Dartmouth Summer Research Conference on Artificial Intelligence, which was organized in part (and titled) by McCarthy.

The Dartmouth Conference, as it is now known, almost single-handedly created the academic discipline of artificial intelligence research. The mission statement of the conference included the following:

“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. An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves.”

What McCarthy and his fellow organizers did not know at the time, and did not recognize until later, is that the first crude artificial intelligence computer program had already been written. Thus, the first AI program actually predates the formal use of the termartificial intelligence.


Get the answer.

What early artificial intelligence computer program predates the termartificial intelligence, as the program was written before the famous 1956 Dartmouth Summer Research Conference on Artificial Intelligence, which first published the term?

The program is the Logic Theorist, which was written over several months in 1955 and 1956 by Alan Newell, Herbert Simon, and J. C. Shaw while the trio worked for the RAND Corporation.

The Logic Theorist was an early search-tree algorithm program that was designed to efficiently solve formal logic problems. Newell, Simon, and Shaw set the Logic Theorist upon the task of generating proofs for the theorems contained in Principia Mathematica, an influential work of symbolic logic that defines and describes most major mathematic principles using a few basic logical axioms. To keep the processing efficient, the Logic Theorist’s search tree was “pruned” using some foundational rules, which the programmers called heuristics, marking the first time this term from formal logic was applied to an artificial intelligence program. (Heuristics is now an entire subfield of AI research.)

The Logic Theorist not only generated proofs for 38 of the theorems in Principia Mathematica, but in at least one case, generated a more elegant proof than had been previously published. Ironically, when the trio tried to publish the new proof, all the major journals rejected it on the grounds that it was too elementary, despite the fact that a computer program was listed as a co-author.

By the same token, no one outside Newell, Simon, and Shaw seemed to initially recognize exactly what the Logic Theorist represented, including the other attendees of the Dartmouth Conference, who seemed unimpressed that someone had already written the computer program the conference was designed to create. Still, that didn’t stop the creators of the Logic Theorist from enjoying distinguished careers.

Newell developed a so-called Unified Theory of Cognition, which is one of the foremost models of AI design today. He also shared the Turing Medal for distinction in AI research with Simon. For his part, Simon won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his concepts of bounded rationality. And as for J. C. Shaw, the only computer programmer who actually worked on the Logic Theorist? He’s now in the history books for coding the first artificial intelligence ever written.

That’s not just a cognitively commendable code-monkeying; it’s a synthetically self-aware slice of semi-simulated Geek Trivia.

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