John McCarthy, one of the fathers of AI, dies at 84

McCarthy developed the LISP programming language and AI labs at MIT and Stanford

John McCarthy, one of the fathers of artificial intelligence, died Sunday. He was 84.

John McCarthy
Artificial intelligence pioneer John McCarthy

In 1958, while at MIT, McCarthy invented the programming language LISP, which has become the main language for artificial intelligence (AI) work. He also was one of the co-founders of the first AI laboratory at MIT and the founder of the AI laboratory at Stanford University.

Stanford University, where McCarthy was a professor emeritus of computer science, confirmed his death in a tweet Tuesday.

Holding a doctorate in mathematics, McCarthy didn't take credit for inventing the field of AI, although he is widely considered one of the founding fathers of the field and holds a significant spot in its history because of his development of the programming language used in AI.

Of all the high-level programming languages in use today, only Fortran is older than LISP, and only by a year.

McCarthy based his years of AI research on the premise that human intelligence can be understood and described succinctly enough that it can be taught to a machine.

"I started my work in artificial intelligence in about '56, although I became really interested in it before that, in '49, when I was a beginning graduate student in mathematics," said McCarthy during an interview for the book Thinking Allowed: Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove, which was published in 1995. "I would say that the field has made somewhat less progress than I hoped, although I didn't have any definite opinion as to how fast it would progress. I think that it had and still has difficult conceptual problems to solve before we can get computer programs that are as intelligent as humans."

McCarthy also said one of the hardest things about AI is giving machines a self-awareness of their part in the world.

"One part of the problem is to develop language in which we can express for our computer programs the facts and reasoning about the common-sense world that humans have, and that is necessary in order to behave intelligently," he added. "A machine isn't the sum of its parts. If somebody took a car apart and gave you a heap of the parts, that wouldn't be a car. They have to be connected in a specified way and interacting in a specified way, and so if you want to say that the mind is a structure composed of parts interacting in a specialized way, I would agree with that, but it isn't just a heap of them."

McCarthy was the 1988 recipient of the Kyoto Prize, considered the Japanese equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for lifetime contributions to computer science and artificial intelligence.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is

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