After Hours

Geek Trivia: Cast the first drone

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

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.


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About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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