From Kerry to California: The Irish visionary who helped change world

From Kerry to California: The Irish visionary who helped change world

It’s a long way, geographically, from the small south Kerry village of Cromane to the gilded acres of California’s Stanford University.

And an even greater cultural distance when one’s origins derived from deep poverty and forced emigration, only to transform in a single generation to the highest echelons of American academia.

Such was the life journey of John McCarthy — lauded as “a computer age visionary” and “the godfather of artificial intelligence’ — and to whom the new Fexco facility in Killorglin was dedicated last week.

When he died in 2011, aged 84, the computer science pioneer was described by one US newspaper as “perhaps the greatest Irish-American you’ve never heard of”.

Fexco CEO Denis McCarthy and Susan McCarthy, daughter of John McCarthy, to whom the new Fexco facility in Killorglin, Co Kerry, was dedicated last week. Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan
Fexco CEO Denis McCarthy and Susan McCarthy, daughter of John McCarthy, to whom the new Fexco facility in Killorglin, Co Kerry, was dedicated last week. Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan

Accepted as a giant in the field of computer science and a seminal figure in the development of artificial intelligence, McCarthy’s achievements won him global respect and in 1971 the Turing Prize, the highest distinction in science and known as the “Nobel Prize of computing”. He also received the Kyoto Prize in 1988, and in 1990 the National Medal of Science, America’s highest technical award.

Like so many Irish success stories, it began in the humblest of circumstances. His father John left Cromane in the early 1920s in search of better prospects, selling a cow for the fare to London. Meeting his future wife Ida there, the couple eventually moved to Boston, where John was born in 1927.

As the Great Depression began to bite, the family eventually moved to Los Angeles, where his father found work as a union organiser with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers.

Even at an early age, John displayed an affinity for mathematics so advanced it allowed him to skip the first two years of his undergraduate degree. One of his favourite sayings was: “He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense.”

At a 1956 conference in Dartmouth College, McCarthy first coined the term ‘artificial intelligence’, a process he defined as “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines”.

He also created Lisp — the computer language used in robotics and the basis of a multitude of internet-based services, from credit-card fraud detection to airline scheduling, to the voice recognition technology used in Siri and Alexa today.

He developed the concept of computer time-sharing, an advance that transformed the efficiency of distributed computing and predated the era of cloud computing by decades.

“People knew that time-sharing was clearly the way to go, but nobody could figure out how to make it work — nobody except John,” said Les Earnest, a senior research scientist emeritus at Stanford.

McCarthy went on to develop the first ‘hand-eye’ system in which a computer was able to recognise actual 3D blocks via a video camera and control a robotic arm for lifting and stacking.

He contended that “every aspect of learning or intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.”

In 1964 he became the founding director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Its goal was the creation of a “thinking machine” — a task that McCarthy said would require “1.8 Einsteins and one-tenth the resources of the Manhattan Project”.

Known for his total focus upon whatever project he was working on, McCarthy’s eye was always turned toward the next peak of discovery.

“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.

“He was always focused on the future. Always inventing, inventing, inventing. That was John.”

Focused on exploring methods to enable machines to become capable of abstract thought, McCarthy’s vision saw beyond the laboratory and into the age when computers would be ubiquitous additions in every office, home, and handbag.

“Program designers have a tendency to think of users as idiots who need to be controlled,” he observed.

“They should rather think of their program as a servant, whose master, the user, should be able to control.”

During his tenure at Stanford, McCarthy formed the ‘Homebrew Computer Club,’ a Silicon Valley group of computer enthusiasts whose membership would go on to include Steven P Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, the future co-founders of Apple Corp and designers of the first personal computer prototype, the Apple 1.

After his death, one of the many epitaphs from former colleagues stood out: “John McCarthy was a man who helped change the world.”

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