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Sad news of the death of John McCarthy, former professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, who coined the very term “artificial intelligence” in 1955 and invented the LISP programming language in 1958.

McCarthy was a true “progressive” in that he appreciated the rapid and dramatic improvements in human living standards brought about by innovation. It was from McCarthy’s website that I first learned of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s remarks, in the Edinburgh Review, that I often quote — “We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and with just as much apparent reason … On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us”.

This alerted me to the startling fact that even 200 years ago, when human living standards had barely begun to improve, intellectuals were already lamenting the imminent and inevitable end of that improvement. They were wrong then and they are wrong now.

To think the world is as good as it gets is Panglossian. McCarthy’s optimism was the opposite of Panglossian.

(hat tip Julian Morris)

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist