Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pioneer in artificial intelligence

John McCarthy, 84, died in his sleep last Sunday evening.

Computer programmers of my generation who became interested in artificial intelligence (an expression coined by McCarthy in 1955) usually tackled the rudiments of the LISP language (developed by McCarthy) by means of this slim blue book:

John McCarthy was one of the experts whom I interviewed for my 52-minute TV documentary on artificial intelligence that was broadcast in France on 25 June 1972.

This documentary is housed in the archives of the French Institut national de l'audiovisuel. Click the banner to access the website page describing the documentary.

During the shooting of the documentary, I visited SAIL [Stanford AI Laboratory] out in the hills of Palo Alto, where McCarthy and his team were working on the creation of robot arms, seen in the background of the following photo:

I recall that their most advanced arm was being taught how to build a brick wall. It used a video camera to obtain feedback on the state of advancement of the wall, and to verify that none of its bricks had been wrongly placed. In a corner of the laboratory, the robot arm, its camera and the bricks were enclosed in a kind of plexiglass greenhouse, while the computers were located on the outside. McCarthy told me that testing a robot arm could be a dangerous activity. Program bugs were capable of causing the arm to pick up bricks and start throwing them at the programmers and their computers.

At that time, McCarthy and his colleagues were developing one of the world's first autonomous robotic vehicles. It looked like a kid's cart. Visitors arriving by car at SAIL would often be surprised to find themselves sharing the road with this slow-moving vehicle, which spent its time learning how to wander around on its own through the grounds of the laboratory without running off the road.

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