Posted by: drwbortz | October 28, 2011

This One Hurts

John McCarthy died four days ago. He was 84. His obit in the “New York Times” made specific reference to his generally attributed parenthood of artificial intelligence.

John was my good friend and a terrible patient. For 30 years he resisted my best effort to shape up his dissolute lifestyle. He made 84, despite his derelictions. But a large reason why I recall him as a miserable patient is my fault. Every one of his visits to my office disrupted my subsequent patient schedule, because my encounters with him were so magnificently enriching that I defaulted the length of his scheduled appointment, and thereby made everybody else late.

John was probably the smartest person whom I had ever known. His early career was as a mathematician, initially at CalTech, then Princeton, then Dartmouth, eventually to MIT where he with Marvin Minsky spawned the world’s first artificial intelligence laboratory. He moved to Stanford in 1962, which was to be his subsequent academic home. Here he founded the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which birthed many of the techie geniuses of Silicon Valley. He invited members of the Homebrew Computer Club, a hobbyist group, to meet at his lab. Among the early attendees were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The rest is history, as they say.

In 1941, while at Princeton he joined the Communist Party, part of his pedigree since both his parents were members. His romance with this leftist philosophy eventually faded around the Vietnam War, and he became more conservative thereafter; always the consummate optimistic humanist.

John had a special love for chess. While at Dartmouth in the 1950s, he taught his computer to play chess. Around this time, he engaged a group of Soviet scientists in an international tournament, which lasted a year. The Soviets won. This high profile application was eventually expanded to the PR-rich world, where chess masters and Big Blue (IBM) contested. This exposed the world’s attention on the issue of whether the human brain had found its match or maybe even its master.

En route, John’s fascinating life placed him in contact with legends. Alan Turing, Robert Oppenheimer, and other members of the atom bomb group, the big hitters at the Santa Fe Institute, and Nobel laureates were on his phone regularly. I never could figure out how John managed to fit his huge brain inside his average-size skull. His intellect was vast with prodigious memory storage. His awesome brainpower often would penetrate into deep philosophic meanderings that I treasured so much.

We spent endless hours looking into the free will / determinism terrain. But, John’s intellect extended far beyond his own field of science science into history, politics, astronomy, and philosophy. He entertained himself with science-fiction rambles. Each encounter with him left me enriched in a major way. His extraordinary intellect sometimes obscured the pixie within. Often after a sudden childish grin emerged, I wondered whether indeed he might be a leprechaun.

My official role as John’s internist ended in 2000 as I left the practice of medicine. My attention drifted afield until several months ago, another Stanford faculty member off-handedly mentioned to me that John McCarthy was doing poorly, and had had several falls. I bristled at this thought that this great man was faltering. So I called him and invited myself over for a house call. His house was shuttered, the lawn was not mowed. John was down in a darkened room with an oxygen tube tethering him to his bed. A dark omen loomed.

I was agitated. I spoke, ”John if you don’t get your rump out of that bed, you’re going to die.” He didn’t flinch, nor did he make any actual display of distress at my insistence, much as he had filibustered my counsel over the years.
I visited John at his home several times a week for the intervening months, each time feasting on the incredibly rich banter that we created.

One month ago, as I was about to leave, he restrained me and said, “Walter wait a moment.” He managed to straighten himself out of bed, arose, and walked across the room. I was thrilled, as joyous a moment of success in a clinical sense as the resolution of an elevated temperature in a febrile patient, or the reversion to a normal pattern of a disordered cardiac rhythm.

Then yesterday I received a call I had somehow managed to avoid contemplating from John’s daughter. “John died.” I shuddered. But she generously said that my friendship was important to John, and that he had felt a real bond. Whatever small light that I might have brought to John’s candle pales in comparison to what John McCarthy’s friendship meant to me.

I feel a big hole somewhere within.


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