The Dartmouth College Artificial Intelligence Conference: The Next Fifty Years

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* The Dartmouth College Artificial Intelligence Conference: The Next 50 Years (AI@50) took place July 13-15, 2006. The conference had three objectives: to celebrate the Dartmouth Summer Research Project, which occurred in 1956; to assess how far AI has progressed; and to project where AI is going or should be going. AI@50 was generously funded by the office of the Dean of Faculty and the office of the Provost at Dartmouth College, by DARPA, and by some private donors.

Reflections on 1956

Dating the beginning of any movement is difficult, but the Dartmouth Summer Research Project of 1956 is often taken as the event that initiated AI as a research discipline. John McCarthy, a mathematics professor at Dartmouth at the time, had been disappointed that the papers in Automata Studies, which he coedited with Claude Shannon, did not say more about the possibilities of computers possessing intelligence. Thus, in the proposal written by John McCarthy,

Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon, and Nathaniel Rochester for the 1956 event, McCarthy wanted, as he explained at AI@50, "to nail the flag to the mast." McCarthy is credited for coining the phrase "artificial intelligence" and solidifying the orientation of the field. It is interesting to speculate whether the field would have been any different had it been called "computational intelligence" or any of a number of other possible labels.

Five of the attendees from the original project attended AI@50 (figure 1). Each gave some recollections. McCarthy acknowledged that the 1956 project did not live up to expectations in terms of collaboration. The attendees did not come at the same time and most kept to their own research agenda. McCarthy emphasized that nevertheless there were important research developments at the time, particularly Allen Newell, Cliff Shaw, and Herbert Simon's Information Processing Language (IPL) and the Logic Theory Machine.


Marvin Minsky commented that, although he had been working on neural nets for his dissertation a few years prior to the 1956 project, he discontinued this earlier work because he became convinced that advances could be made with other approaches using computers. Minsky expressed the concern that too many in AI today try to do what is popular and publish only successes. He argued that AI can never be a science until it publishes what fails as well as what succeeds.

Oliver Selfridge highlighted the importance of many related areas of research before and after the 1956 summer project that helped to propel AI as a field. The development of improved languages and machines was essential. He offered tribute to many early pioneering activities such as J. C. R. Lickleiter developing time-sharing, Nat Rochester designing IBM computers, and Frank Rosenblatt working with perceptrons.

Trenchard More was sent to the summer project for two separate weeks by the University of Rochester. Some of the best notes describing the AI project were taken by More, although ironically he admitted that he never liked the use of "artificial" or "intelligence" as terms for the field.

Ray Solomonoff said he went to the summer project hoping to convince everyone of the importance of machine learning. He came away knowing a lot about Turing machines that informed future work.

Thus, in some respects the 1956 summer research project fell short of expectations. The participants came at various times and worked on their own projects, and hence it was not really a conference in the usual sense. There was no agreement on a general theory of the field and in particular on a general theory of learning. The field of AI was launched not by agreement on methodology or choice of problems or general theory, but by the shared vision that computers can be made to perform intelligent tasks. This vision was stated boldly in the proposal for the 1956 conference: "The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. …


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