The Singularity – Amazing Progress in Artificial Intelligence – The Story of John McCarthy

In 1956 John McCarthy organized a summer conference at Dartmouth University (US). McCarthy called the subject of the conference Artificial Intelligence (“AI”). It was at this meeting that AI was born.

The mathematical genius, Alan Turing, had laid the foundations of AI. However, he had no support, and despite his outstanding service to his country (Britain) during World War II, he was virtually ostracized because he was gay. Turing committed suicide in 1954. (Readers may be interested to know that Apple Computer’s logo of a half-eaten apple is probably in honor of Turing, who had a half bitten apple near him when he died.)

Two years after Turing’s death, McCarthy assembled some of the greatest minds at Dartmouth. These included Marvin Minsky (who later co-founded MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab), Allen Newell (who wrote some of the earliest AI programs), Claude Shannon (the father of information theory), and Nathaniel Rochester (who designed IBM’s designing IBM’s first commercial computer).

So What is Artificial intelligence?

AI is best described in the introduction to the Dartmouth conference. McCarthy and his fellow organizers wrote:

“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. We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.”

In simple words, artificial intelligence is having a machine think and react to the world in a manner that is just like a human.

John McCarthy (1927 – 2011)

McCarthy was born in the US as the son of two immigrants, his father from Ireland and his mother from Lithuania. This is yet another example of how the US has hugely benefitted from the immigration of people from all over the world. This also shows that many people obtained opportunities to flower and excel in the US, much more than what was available in their own home countries.

McCarthy’s parents were poor, and the family struggled and suffered during the great depression (1929 to 1933) in the US. However, McCarthy showed exceptional abilities in mathematics. He finished school two years early and went to the famous California Institute of Technology (Caltech) where he got his first degree. He was in such demand that he then attended or taught at most of the great universities in the US (Princeton, MIT, Stanford).

In addition to his pioneering work in AI, McCarthy read widely and was a strong proponent for democracy and free speech. He also maintained that to get a real education everyone needed to study mathematics. On his car, he displayed a sticker saying, “Do the arithmetic or be doomed to talk nonsense.”

The Singularity

In the 1950s, when the Dartmouth conference was held, many people dismissed AI as a fantasy. However, in the sixty years since the conference AI has had incredible successes. AI:

  • Can easily defeat the best players of chess and the Japanese game go. In 1997 when the IBM computer program, Deep Blue, defeated Gary Kasparov, he said, “For the first time in the history of mankind, I saw something similar to an artificial intellect. I know very few chess players who could take this heat.”
  • Successfully identifies various forms of diseases, including cancer, in a manner much more accurate and faster than human beings can
  • Can summarize any length and depth of articles, including news, scientific literature, stories, information, emails, patents, and legislative bills.
  • Drive care. The advent of driverless cars is only limited now by legal approvals
  • Recognize and memorize millions of human faces
  • Respond to human queries on the internet or via call centers for specific business requirements. The humans rarely know that it is a machine they are interacting with
  • Make scientific discoveries. Recently AI solved one of biology’s most challenging problems; it was able to determine how proteins (molecules we are all made of) get their geometric shape. This is important for further medical advances

The list of these successes is growing longer every day. The Technological Singularity is explained as the moment when AI overtakes human intelligence. Some computer scientists say we have already passed this singularity. Others believe we are very close to this occurring.

For those who are skeptical, Ray Kurzweil, the author of the book “The Singularity is Near,” wrote, “Most long-range forecasts of what is technically feasible in future time periods dramatically underestimate the power of future developments.”

The risks of this singularity are high. Automation is taking away the work of people on the shop floor, now with the singularity near Gary Kasparov says, “The machines have finally come for the white-collared, the college graduates, the decision-makers.”

Others are less worried. Gordon Moore, the founder of the computer chip company Intel, argued that the singularity would not occur because intelligence is “not a one-dimensional, quantifiable characteristic of humans or computers.” Creativity includes music, the arts, and the sciences. Even if machines gain great intelligence in some spheres, Moore believes there will always be a place for humans and human thought.

The question remains unanswered, and the next ten to twenty years will show us if the singularity has come!

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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