Tribute To John McCarthy


John McCarthy Stanford 2006
John McCarthy Stanford 2006 Picture from Wikipedia

John McCarthy, often dubbed the “father of artificial intelligence” (AI), passed away on October 24th 2011. He was a scientist of genius whose work is now bearing fruit, among others, in cloud computing, knowledge management and natural language processing. May he rest in peace.

Not much connection with eCommerce? Well, stay with me as I’d like to pay a small tribute to a great man and share a few insights I draw from his life and work…

  • Innovation is not only a marketing ploy: It’s OK to say cursorily that a company’s new product revolutionizes an area, like Apple’s SIRI voice-commands recently did, for example. But it’s also good to put things in perspective and remember that hundreds of thousands of man years by researchers like McCarthy are necessary to create (the conditions for) new products. Marketers should honor researchers and inventors.
  • What’s in a name? Sometimes more than wished for. John McCarthy is credited with coining the phrase artificial intelligence (AI). With all due respect, it was not his best contribution. The name reflected the researcher’s faith in their ability to automate many mind processes. But to many in the general public, that prospect felt threatening. It evoked the fear that AI was about subjugating man to robots. AI became much acceptable under the banner of expert systems.
  • The Hype Cycle According to Gartner Group
    The Hype Cycle According to Gartner Group

    The curse of the hype.In the 60’s, AI promised a lot. It delivered… much later, from the 90’s on. By repeatedly raising inflated expectations, AI soon faced what Gartner Group aptly describes as the trough of disillusionment of the hype curve. This caused significant setbacks to research. AI, artificial and even intelligent, as in intelligent agents, became bad words. They remain so even now when their underlying concepts are coming to fruition in other guises.

Hopefully there are many young John McCarthy’s out there. Wherever they are, now is a good time for them to develop commercial applications in the fields of cloud computing, knowledge management and natural language processing that John McCarthy contributed to open, and that are now indispensable for eCommerce.

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