Remembering John McCarthy

A tribute to the man who made Lisp

3 min read

This past October saw the death of John McCarthy, one of the pioneers of computer science and a founder of the field of artificial intelligence (AI), a phrase he is credited with inventing. It capped a sad month that also saw the passing of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs and of Dennis Ritchie, the coinventor of Unix and the C programming language.

John McCarthy was born in Boston in 1927, but he grew up near Caltech, where he got his B.S. in mathematics. He detoured to Princeton for his Ph.D. but ended up at MIT, where he cofounded its artificial-intelligence lab, the world's first, before going on to Stanford in 1962 to found its artificial-intelligence lab.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
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In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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