What’s in a name?

Who can we blame for AI’s dumb moniker?

02 April 2024

Let me start with the assurance that my headline is not for you to answer. No need to send me a “let me google that for you” link. When I sat down to write this column – a lament on the power of catchy names, if we’re honest – I started by searching for a refresher on AI history.

For me, the “who coined it?” factoids live in the same part of the brain as “What is the capital of X country?” questions. That’s to say my weirdo brain has declared these largely non-essential (or working data when I’m using them), frequently moving them to RAM and periodically overwriting them, typically with something entirely useless like the lyrics to every ‘90s pop song. But if you were tempted to guess Alan Turing, you’d be wrong. Yes, John von Neumann and Turing are the accepted “founding fathers”, but the name was applied a few years later by John McCarthy at MIT. “Machine learning” followed thereafter, in fact. Turing spoke of automatic machines for computation, using available info and reasoning, his peers and successors of machines that could perform tasks more akin to human thinking, but the computational power and memory needed to get us closer to how we think of AI today was still decades away.

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