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Posts Tagged ‘John McCarthy

“God help us — for art is long, and life so short”*…

 

The creation of a homunculus, an artificially made miniature human, from an 1899 edition of Goethe’s Faust

Making life artificially wasn’t as big a deal for the ancients as it is for us. Anyone was supposed to be able to do it with the right recipe, just like baking bread. The Roman poet Virgil described a method for making synthetic bees, a practice known as bougonia, which involved beating a poor calf to death, blocking its nose and mouth, and leaving the carcass on a bed of thyme and cinnamon sticks. “Creatures fashioned wonderfully appear,” he wrote, “first void of limbs, but soon awhir with wings.”

This was, of course, simply an expression of the general belief in spontaneous generation: the idea that living things might arise from nothing within a fertile matrix of decaying matter. Roughly 300 years earlier, Aristotle, in his book On the Generation of Animals, explained how this process yielded vermin, such as insects and mice. No one doubted it was possible, and no one feared it either (apart from the inconvenience); one wasn’t “playing God” by making new life this way.

The furor that has sometimes accompanied the new science of synthetic biology—the attempt to reengineer living organisms as if they were machines for us to tinker with, or even to build them from scratch from the component parts—stems from a decidedly modern construct, a “reverence for life.” In the past, fears about this kind of technological hubris were reserved mostly for proposals to make humans by artificial means—or as the Greeks would have said, by techne, art…

Philip Ball digs into myth, history, and science to untangle the roots of our fears of artificial life: “Man Made: A History of Synthetic Life.”

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: Part One

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As we marvel that “it’s alive!,” we might send carefully-coded birthday greetings to John McCarthy; he was born on this date in 1927.  An eminent computer and cognitive scientist– he was awarded both the Turning Prize and the National Medal of Science– McCarthy coined the phrase “artificial Intelligence” to describe the field of which he was a founder.

It was McCarthy’s 1979 article, “Ascribing Mental Qualities to Machines” (in which 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”) that provoked John Searle‘s 1980 disagreement in the form of his famous Chinese Room Argument… provoking a broad debate that continues to this day.

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Monsters of Grok…

 

From Amorphia Apparel:

Fake band t-shirts for history’s greatest minds:  I don’t know about you, but I think science and philosophy are pretty bad ass, so join me in rocking out with some the most influential thinkers of all time!

More sagacious shirts at Amorphia Apparel

 

As we opt for ring-spun wisdom, we might wish a thoughtful Happy Birthday to cognitive and computer scientist John McCarthy; he was born on this date in 1927.  A recipient of the Turing Award, McCarthy coined the phrase “Artificial Intelligence” (in a 1955 proposal for a 1956 Dartmouth conference), founded the first A.I. Lab (at MIT in 1958), and created LISP (List Processing Language), the computer language most commonly used in AI research.

In 1961, McCarthy was the first to imagine and propose a future in which computers could be shared by multiple users, and computing could be provided as a utility.  The idea was popular in the late 60s, then waned in the 70s, as it became clear that hardware and software weren’t (yet) up to the task.  But with the new millennium, McCarthy’s concept retook the fore– and in the last few years, rose to The Cloud…

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