Spinners Dinner Talk, April 28th 2015
I shall relate an incident that happened at the old AI Lab up in the hills during my time there.
But first, I have to tell you how I got to be at the AI Lab in the first place.
I have worked for John McCarthy three times in my career. I first met John when I was a new Mathematics graduate student at MIT in the late 1950’s. The forward thinking Robert Fano, chairman of EE, hired a new assistant prof from Dartmouth College, McCarthy.
The Math Dept lent 6 new graduate assistants to EE, and Fano farmed them out to various projects. Bob Brayton and I ended up on McCarthy’s project in the basement of the ERL building. It was one room with no outside window.
McCarthy had two research programmers, Steve Russell and Klim Mailing. And he was busy defining a new programming language in which recursion was front and center. McCarthy thought recursion was fundamental to machine intelligence.
Now he had two very green research assistants as well!
The new language was to be base upon Church’s Lambda Calculus and was eventually called Lisp. Russell and Mailing built the first Lisp interpreter. And Brayton and I were tasked with building the first compiler, which it took us about a year to do – the Lisp1 compiler.
The next summer McCarthy tasked me with building the first Lisp time-sharing system on an old IBM 704, or maybe it was a 709. As you all know, McCarthy also had a bee in his bonnet about time-shared central computers. I was able to co-opt some beautifully written SAP code by Marge Merwin and Herb Teager. So it was an easy task. This time-sharing Lisp system was demonstrated to a meeting of one of the Societies (Maybe the AMS, or the ACM or the IEEE) in Sept 1959 or 1960, I’ve forgotten which. There was a barrier with a crowd behind it and an operator at the console of the 704. People would either shout or write mathematical functions to be differentiated or integrated using programs that had been coded in Lisp. Jim Slagle’s symbolic integration program was running at that time. The operator would enter the problems and Lisp would grind away while another program counted numbers in the AC and MQ registers so’s you could see the console lights blinking.
Subsequently I finished my degree and under the terms of the Fulbright program I returned to England and took a job teaching Mathematics at Manchester (BTW, this was the place where Alan Turing committed suicide).
Two years later I met McCarthy again at one of Donald Michie’s AI Workshops in Edinburgh. He invited me to join him again at his current location – Stanford – as a Research Associate. The weather in Manchester was atrocious. So I resigned my faculty position at Manchester and flew out to Stanford.
The first thing McCarthy did, by way of introducing me to life in the Bay Area was to drive me up to the City, to a Jefferson Airplane concert. McCarthy was now imbibing the current culture, including the Mid-Peninsula Free University.
A couple of years later I was offered a faculty position at UCLA, and I took it.
One day the great Mohammed Ali arrived on UCLA campus to give a lunchtime talk in support of the black student union.
Ali was at the height of his powers and full of himself. He had just been exonerated of draft evasion by the US Supreme Court. And he had won back one of his heavyweight titles. He was arguably the most famous man in the world. I remember well the verse he was chanting that day:
“I don’t want no pie
Up there in the sky
When I die.
I want something sound
Down here on the ground
While I’m around”
He had a big stack of photographs, glossy 8*10 magazine style photos of himself, and he started signing them and handed them out, a Dollar a time. “Ali, Ali, Ali …”
I went up and paid my dollar and got a personally signed photograph of the most famous man in the world.
Sometime later John McCarthy came to LA and we had lunch. He invited me back to the AI Lab. He said he could get me a more senior position, Senior Research Associate, but not a faculty position. I had not been able to acclimatize to life in La-La Land. So I resigned my faculty positon at UCLA and moved back to the AI Lab.
I was given an office with a bit of a window. But it had three blank sheet rock walls and needed brightening up. So, I pinned my one dollar photo of Ali on the wall, and also I pinned the little verse underneath. A Calendar and a couple of other things, and the office looked much brighter.
As you all know the AI Lab was a very open place. People came and went all the time, sometimes just to see the panoramic view. There was a sauna in the basement and people sleeping on mattresses up in the rafters above the ceiling. And there was one central time-shared PDP computer with about a hundred consoles hanging off of it. And all manner of projects were ongoing, including Computer Music, Computer Psychiatric testing, Font design, Robotics, Progam Verification, Language Translation and so on.
One morning a few weeks later I came into the office and I sensed that something was terribly wrong. It took me about thirty seconds to notice that the little verse was still on the wall, but where the Ali photo had been there was a big blank space.
I was totally mortified. I blamed myself. For in that moment I had been taught one of the fundamental lessons of living, something I should have already known! And that is, that the value of something is not what you pay for it or what someone else will pay for it, but what it means to you.
Of all the things I have done in my life
That I wish I had not done,
And that includes my first two marriages,
Top of that list is pinning that photograph on that
Open office wall.
I told no one, not even Earnest. I said nothing.
But I will say something now, today.
The person who took my photograph is probably not in this room today. But to whomever it is, I will say this:
“You’ve had it for 43 years.
It’s time to give it back.
No questions asked.
Thank you for the lesson.
And I will be more than happy to donate a thousand dollars to a charity of your choosing.”