Thursday 22 July 2021

McCarthy, multiculuralism and me

John McCarthy is one of the towering giants of Computer Science. He is one of the founders of Artificial Intelligence, he developed the LISP programming language, and he also basically invented the concept of time-sharing computers.

In 1992, I was in my second year of the Computer Science program at Texas AandM University, pursuing a Master’s degree. Artificial Intelligence was one subject I took in the first semester. We learnt and programmed in LISP in that course. Robotics was another course I took in the first semester, and Expert Systems and Machine Learning were two courses I studied in the second semester. My ambition was AI.

Me in 1992, in my office at Texas A&M University

The Internet was mainly email and Usenet in those days. The WorldWideWeb was in its infancy but I saw my first web page only in 1994. Usenet was the precursor to the Web, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etcetera – a gigantic collection of bullettin boards on various topics.  I sometimes wasted time debating cricket, politics, cinema, Tamil language etc on some Usenet groups like soc.culture.indian, etc.  Perhaps the only useful thing I did was type in Kulasekara Azhwar's Perumal Tirumozhi in Adami software. It turns out that some other guy called Badri Seshadri was doing the same. But, ten-fold.

One random day, I read a post on multiculturalism, academic courses, Indian reformers banning sati etc. This was  a reply to a reply to an original post, and I added my comments without reading the orignial post. There was a reply soon after, and I noticed that the author was… John McCarthy. Computer Science Department, Stanford.

At first I thought it was some student with a famous name….Surely the father of AI wasn’t have a chat with me… Shortly thereafter I realized that it was indeed the same John McCarthy whose very LISP I had learnt the previous year. The SAIL in his email address was “Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab”.


For a while I was puzzled, though. Why is the Father of AI writing about multiculturalism and general college syllabus? I was studying in the most conservative large university in the USA, and I was fairly liberal then, so the woke liberalism of other colleges was a closed book to me then. Today his warnings and concerns seem realistic and reasonable. In 1992, I wondered if he was a white supremacist.

At that time, I had given up on AI as going nowhere, and having poor prospects for a mediocrity like me, after two semesters of studying AI subjects. I wondered if McCarthy felt  the same, which is why he was writing about culture. His wikipedia page says he was active on social groups in the 1990s.

John McCarthy, Photo from Stanford University website

Anyway, it was still something amazing. One could interact with a superstar of computer science over the internet. Today we can follow hundreds of superstars on Twitter or Facebook. But back then it was amazing.  My one great regret of my Texas AM days, is that I never took the chance to stop by the office of Normal Borlaug, who was an emeritus professor at the Agricultural department. Perhaps just to say thanks. But I would have been too star struck to say anything, let alone anything intelligent. I wonder what I would have said, if I had met McCarthy in 2000, when I lived in California for a few months. Probably the same starstruck mouth agape feeling.

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