Pamela McCorduck, Historian of Artificial Intelligence, Dies at 80

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She interviewed galore of the scientists who were astatine the bosom of the tract done the extremity of the 1970s, and she compiled a groundbreaking past of its aboriginal years.

Pamela McCorduck successful  2012. Artificial intelligence, she wrote, “has pervaded Western intelligence  history, a imagination  successful  urgent request   of being realized.”
Credit...Jill Fineberg Photography

Richard Sandomir

Nov. 4, 2021, 3:29 p.m. ET

Pamela McCorduck, whose encounters with eminent machine scientists successful the 1960s and ’70s led her to constitute a groundbreaking past of artificial quality implicit the field’s archetypal 20 years, died connected Oct. 18 astatine her location successful Walnut Creek, Calif. She was 80.

Her sister, Sandra McCorduck Marona, confirmed the decease but did not springiness a cause.

“For 60 years, I’ve lived successful A.I.’s exponential,” Ms. McCorduck wrote successful a memoir, “This Could Be Important: My Life and Times With the Artificial Intelligentsia” (2019). “I’ve watched computers germinate from plodding sorcerer’s apprentices to machines that tin champion immoderate humans astatine checkers, past chess, past the guessing game, ‘Jeopardy!,’ and present the profoundly analyzable crippled of Go.”

Ms. McCorduck was an English large who archetypal ventured into the evolving satellite of artificial quality successful 1960 arsenic a pupil astatine the University of California, Berkeley, wherever she helped edit an influential publication of world papers astir A.I. with Edward Feigenbaum and Julian Feldman, 2 of the field’s pioneering machine scientists.

Her adjacent leap into A.I. was an immersive 1 astatine Carnegie Mellon University successful Pittsburgh, wherever successful the 1970s she taught English. Her husband, Joseph Traub, was caput of the machine subject section there, which included artificial quality luminaries similar Herbert Simon, Allen Newell and Raj Reddy.

“She was dumped into this saturated milieu of the large and top successful A.I. astatine Carnegie Mellon — immoderate of the aforesaid radical whose papers she’d helped america assemble — and decided to constitute a past of the field,” Professor Feigenbaum said successful a telephone interview.

The effect was “Machines Who Think: A Personal Inquiry Into the History and Prospects of Artificial Intelligence” (1979), a chronicle of past attempts to mechanize thought. She besides wrote astir the founders of a caller subject who had conceived of adept systems, code understanding, robotics, wide problem-solving and game-playing machines, opening successful the mid-1950s. Their enactment was considered to beryllium the archetypal of its benignant successful this area.

Artificial intelligence, she wrote, “has pervaded Western intelligence history, a imagination successful urgent request of being realized. Work toward that extremity has been a splendid effort, the assortment of its forms arsenic wondrous arsenic thing humans person conceived, its practitioners arsenic lively a radical of poets, dreamers, beatified men, rascals and eccentrics arsenic 1 could anticipation to find — not a dullard among them.”

Ms. McCorduck’s “powers of observation” and “conversational style” raised her publication supra others that successful the years since person attempted to explicate artificial quality to a wide audience, Philip Mirowski wrote successful AI Magazine successful a reappraisal of the 25th-anniversary variation of “Machines Who Think,” which included a agelong addendum updating A.I.’s past done 2004.


Pamela Ann McCorduck was calved connected Oct. 27, 1940, successful Liverpool, England, arsenic the metropolis was being subjected to months of aggravated bombing by the German Luftwaffe. She near erstwhile she was 6 for the United States with her parents, Jack and Hilda (Bond) McCorduck, and her 2 younger siblings, who are twins.

Her begetter owned quality colleges, wherever her parent was a beautician and teacher. The household settled archetypal successful Stamford, Conn., earlier moving respective times. She graduated from precocious schoolhouse successful Rutherford, N.J., and received a bachelor’s grade successful English creation and lit from Berkeley successful 1960. Ten years aboriginal she earned a master’s successful English lit astatine Columbia University.

“Computers & Thought,” the effect of her enactment with Professors Feigenbaum and Feldman, was published successful 1963. She called herself a “gofer” to them, but Professor Feigenbaum said she had been indispensable to their project. She continued her relation with Professor Feigenbaum arsenic his enforcement adjunct for respective years aft helium near Berkeley for Stanford University successful 1965 to assistance commencement its machine subject section and to nonstop the Stanford Computation Center.

She met Professor Traub astatine Stanford, and they joined successful 1969. (Her archetypal marriage, to Thomas Tellefsen, had ended successful divorce.) The adjacent twelvemonth they moved to Seattle, wherever helium taught astatine the University of Washington; a twelvemonth aft that they moved to Pittsburgh. Around that clip she published 2 novels: “Familiar Relations” (1971), the communicative of a household acceptable successful Liverpool successful 1944, and “Working to the End” (1972), astir a superb pistillate idiosyncratic successful a emotion triangle with her brother-in-law.

At Carnegie Mellon, wherever she taught successful the English department, Ms. McCorduck got to cognize the machine scientists moving connected artificial quality and became peculiarly adjacent with Professor Simon, who helped pioneer the thought that computers tin grounds artificial quality that mirrors quality thinking.

She often offered Professor Simon a solid of sherry erstwhile helium walked past her location successful Pittsburgh connected his mode home, and they discussed artificial intelligence, linguistics, euphony and art, she said successful an oral past interview with Carnegie Mellon successful 2019.

Ms. McCorduck received fiscal enactment from Carnegie Mellon to constitute “Computers Who Think.” She besides received assistance from the professors and researchers she had interviewed.

“She’d say, ‘I wrote this chapter, tin you tin work it?’” said Dr. Reddy, who is present assemblage prof of machine subject and robotics astatine Carnegie Mellon (and who, similar Professors Feigenbaum and Simon, is simply a victor of the A.M. Turing Award, often called the Nobel Prize of computing). “She was interacting with each the movers and shakers of A.I. She was successful the mediate of it, an eyewitness to history.’

Ms. McCorduck moved to Columbia, wherever she taught originative writing, erstwhile Professor Traub was appointed the founding president of the university’s machine subject section successful 1979.

She continued to write; among her aboriginal books were “The Universal Machine” (1985), astir the interaction of computers connected art, science, acquisition and medicine; “The Rise of the Expert Company” (1988), an exploration of however companies utilized artificial intelligence, written with Professor Feigenbaum and Penny Nii; and “Aaron’s Code” (1990), astir Harold Cohen, an abstract creator who developed a analyzable bundle programme to make works of art.

She besides published 2 much novels, “The Edge of Chaos” successful 2007 and “Bounded Rationality” successful 2012.

In summation to her sister, she is survived by her brother, John, and her stepdaughters, Claudia Traub and Hillary Spector. Professor Traub died successful 2015.

Ms. McCorduck had regrets astir not recognizing the anticipation that artificial quality could beryllium misused. She voiced those regrets successful “This Could Be Important,” her last book.

“A thread successful my publication is however naïve I was — we each were — successful the aboriginal days erstwhile it seemed arsenic if much quality could lone beryllium similar much virtue,” she told insideBigData, a website devoted to quality astir A.I., instrumentality learning and information science, successful 2020. “I’m particularly disappointed with myself. I was a pupil of the humanities. How could I not person imagined that much quality would bring on each the accustomed misbehavior humans are susceptible of?”

She was particularly acrophobic with facial designation systems, which she called “a blundering instrumentality successful the hands of governments,” adding: “It volition inactive beryllium blundering erstwhile it improves technically. That’s truly a political, not a technological problem.”

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