A year later, McCarthy moved to MIT as a research fellow in the autumn of 1956.
In 1962, McCarthy became a full professor at Stanford, where he remained until his retirement in 2000. By the end of his early days at MIT he was already affectionately referred to as "Uncle John" by his students.
John McCarthy invented Lisp in the late 1950s. Based on the lambda calculus, Lisp soon became the programming language of choice for AI applications after its publication in 1960.
In 1958, McCarthy served on an ACM Ad hoc Committee on Languages that became part of the committee that designed ALGOL 60. In August 1959 he proposed the use of recursion and conditional expressions, which became part of ALGOL.
He helped to motivate the creation of Project MAC at MIT when he worked there.
At Stanford University, he helped establish the Stanford AI Laboratory, for many years a friendly rival to Project MAC.
In 1961, he was perhaps the first to suggest publicly the idea of utility computing, in a speech given to celebrate MIT's centennial: that computer time-sharing technology might result in a future in which computing power and even specific applications could be sold through the utility business model (like water or electricity). This idea of a computer or information utility was very popular during the late 1960s, but faded by the mid-1990s. However, since 2000, the idea has resurfaced in new forms (see application service provider, grid computing, and cloud computing).
In 1966, McCarthy and his team at Stanford wrote a computer program used to play a series of chess games with counterparts in the Soviet Union; McCarthy's team lost two games and drew two games (see Kotok-McCarthy).
McCarthy is also credited with developing an early form of time-sharing. His colleague Lester Earnest told the Los Angeles Times: "The Internet would not have happened nearly as soon as it did except for the fact that John initiated the development of time-sharing systems. We keep inventing new names for time-sharing. It came to be called servers.... Now we call it cloud computing. That is still just time-sharing. John started it."
In 1982 he seems to have originated the idea of the "space fountain", a type of tower extending into space and kept vertical by the outward force of a stream of pellets propelled from Earth along a sort of conveyor belt which returns the pellets to Earth (payloads would ride the conveyor belt upward).
McCarthy often commented on world affairs on the Usenet forums. Some of his ideas can be found in his sustainability Web page, which is "aimed at showing that human material progress is desirable and sustainable". McCarthy was a serious book reader, an optimist, and a staunch supporter of free speech. His best Usenet interaction is visible in rec.arts.books archives. And John actively attended SF Bay Area dinners in Palo Alto of r.a.b. readers called rab-fests. John went on to defend free speech criticism involving European ethnic jokes at Stanford.
McCarthy saw the importance of mathematics and mathematics education. His Usenet.sig for years was, "He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense"; his license plate cover read, similarly, "Do the arithmetic or be doomed to talk nonsense." He advised 30 PhD graduates.
His 2001 short story "The Robot and the Baby" farcically explored the question of whether robots should have (or simulate having) emotions, and anticipated aspects of Internet culture and social networking that have become increasingly prominent during ensuing decades.
McCarthy considered himself an atheist. Raised as a Communist, he became a conservative Republican after a two-day visit to Czechoslovakia in 1968 after the Soviet invasion. McCarthy died at his home in Stanford on October 24, 2011.
Philosophy of artificial intelligence
In 1979 McCarthy wrote an article entitled "Ascribing Mental Qualities to Machines." In it he wrote, "Machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs, and having beliefs seems to be a characteristic of most machines capable of problem solving performance." In 1980 the philosopher John Searle responded with his famous Chinese Room Argument, disagreeing with McCarthy and taking the stance that machines cannot have beliefs simply because they are not conscious (he says that machines lack 'intentionality', a term commonly used in the philosophy of mind). A vast amount of literature has been written in support of one side or the other.
Inducted as a Fellow of the Computer History Museum "for his co-founding of the fields of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and timesharing systems, and for major contributions to mathematics and computer science." (1999)
McCarthy, J. 1959. "Programs with Common Sense" at the Wayback Machine (archived October 4, 2013). In Proceedings of the Teddington Conference on the Mechanization of Thought Processes, 756-91. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.
McCarthy, J (1986). "Applications of circumscription to common sense reasoning". Artificial Intelligence. 28 (1): 89-116. doi:10.1016/0004-3702(86)90032-9.
McCarthy, J. 1990. "Generality in artificial intelligence". In Lifschitz, V., ed., Formalizing Common Sense. Ablex. 226-236.
McCarthy, J. 1993. "Notes on formalizing context". In IJCAI, 555-562.
McCarthy, J., and Buvac, S. 1997. "Formalizing context: Expanded notes". In Aliseda, A.; van Glabbeek, R.; and Westerstahl, D., eds., Computing Natural Language. Stanford University. Also available as Stanford Technical Note STAN-CS-TN-94-13.
McCarthy, J. 1998. "Elaboration tolerance". In Working Papers of the Fourth International Symposium on Logical formalizations of Commonsense Reasoning, Commonsense-1998.
Oral history interview with John McCarthy at Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. McCarthy discusses his role in the development of time-sharing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also describes his work in artificial intelligence (AI) funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, including logic-based AI (Lisp) and robotics.
Oral history interview with Marvin Minsky at Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Minsky describes artificial intelligence (AI) research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), including the work of John McCarthy.
Oral history interview with Jack B. Dennis at Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Dennis discusses the work of John McCarthy on time-sharing, and the influence of DARPA's Information Processing Techniques Office on the development of time-sharing.
Oral history interview with Fernando J. Corbató at Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Corbató discusses computer science research, especially time-sharing, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), including John McCarthy and research on time-sharing.
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