Father of artificial intelligence dies in Calif.

Posted Oct. 25, 2011, at 9:14 p.m.

PALO ALTO, Calif. — John McCarthy, a pioneer in artificial intelligence technology and creator of the computer programming language often used in that field, has died. He was 84.

Stanford University, where McCarthy was a professor for four decades, announced McCarthy’s death Monday. The school said he died at his Palo Alto home but did not provide a cause.

Tributes to McCarthy flooded into Twitter, where people mourned the loss of another Silicon Valley technology innovator. Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs and C programming creator and UNIX co-developer Dennis Ritchie died earlier this month.

McCarthy was a leader in the artificial intelligence field, coining the term in a 1955 research proposal. He said “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.”

He went on to create the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, serving as its director from 1965 to 1980.

In 1958, McCarthy invented the programming language Lisp, which paved the way for voice recognition technology, including Siri, the personal assistant application on the newest iPhone.

McCarthy also developed the concept of computer time-sharing, which allowed multiple users to interact with a single computer. That lay the foundation for cloud computing today.

Born in Boston on Sept. 4, 1927, McCarthy moved west to pursue a degree in math at the California Institute of Technology. He received a doctorate in math from Princeton in 1951, and then became a professor at Princeton until 1953. He did turns at MIT and Dartmouth before settling at Stanford in 1962 until his retirement at the end of 2000.

“He could be blunt, but John was always kind and generous with his time, especially with students, and he was sharp until the end,” said Ed Feigenbaum, professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford and a colleague recruited by McCarthy in the 1960s. “He was always focused on the future. Always inventing, inventing, inventing.”

McCarthy won several awards including the A.M. Turing Award in 1971, the highest recognition in computer science, for his contributions to the artificial intelligence field. He was also honored with the Kyoto Prize in 1988 and the National Medal of Science in 1990.

He is survived by his third wife, Carolyn Talcott of Palo Alto; two daughters, Susan McCarthy of San Francisco and Sarah McCarthy of Nevada City, Calif.; a son, Timothy McCarthy of Palo Alto; a brother, Patrick, of Los Angeles; two grandchildren; and his first wife, Martha Coyote.

McCarthy’s second wife, Vera Watson, died in 1978 in a mountain-climbing accident attempting to scale Annapurna in Nepal.

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