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Author Pamela McCorduck: “It’s remarkable that an entire industry has been built almost from scratch in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century that goes out of its way to replicate medieval attitudes and practices with regard to women”

It’s remarkable that an entire industry has been built almost from scratch in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century that goes out of its way to replicate medieval attitudes and practices with regard to women. How to change that? Everyone knows, but most of the people in power aren’t yet convinced change is necessary. I […]

It’s remarkable that an entire industry has been built almost from scratch in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century that goes out of its way to replicate medieval attitudes and practices with regard to women. How to change that? Everyone knows, but most of the people in power aren’t yet convinced change is necessary. I once asked the Nobel laureate physicist, I. I. Rabi, how long it took for his colleagues to be changed by these new ideas about quantum physics he brought back from his graduate studies in Germany. “Change?” he cried, and roared with laughter. “I had to wait for them to die!” I hope we can do better. You should ask Fei-Fei Li at Stanford this question. She can surely answer it better than I can, engaged as she has been with the organization she helped found, AI4All, aimed at bringing about diversity in AI research.


As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pamela McCorduck. McCorduck is not an industrialist, but rather has made her name as an astute and authoritative observer of the evolution and growth of AI since the 1960s. She wrote the first modern history of artificial intelligence, Machines Who Think, published in 1979, which was translated into all the major European and Asian languages. Much later she learned that this book had been a major influence on students who would become senior leaders in AI research. But it was her The Fifth Generation, co-authored with Edward Feigenbaum, about Japanese ambitions in AI, which brought AI to worldwide public attention and sold half a million copies. She has also written about the sciences of complexity, built upon physics, mathematics, and AI. Her most recent book, This Could Be Important: My Life and Times with the Artificial Intelligentsia, is a memoir of her first encounters with the pioneers in the field, and her subsequent (and mostly futile) efforts to convince leading public intellectuals in New York City that AI could be important.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the “backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path?

In1960 I was a graduating English major at the University of California in Berkeley. Two young assistant professors asked me to be the gofer on the book they were editing, Computers and Thought, the first book ever of readings in AI. In 1960 I had to ask what in the world artificial intelligence was. After a few zigs and zags as a novelist, the field captured me completely, and I wrote Machines Who Think.

Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

I’ve just completed a book that’s one part personal memoir, one part group biography of the AI pioneers, all of whom I knew, and one part social history called This Could Be Important: My Life and Times with the Artificial Intelligentsia. Very much a book about people, not machines. Its title refers to how so much of my professional life was spent pulling on the sleeves of public intellectuals and saying, you know? AI could be important. Three decades of futility!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Not one, but two: Edward Feigenbaum, the father of expert systems and now a professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford, introduced me to AI, and was unfailingly supportive as I was embarking on that history I mentioned above, Machines Who Think. We later co-authored two more books together, and remain close friends — though I must admit, most of our conversations these days are about our mutual love of music. The other was my late husband of almost fifty years, Joseph F. Traub. Joe was an eminent computer scientist, head of the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon, and then was brought to Columbia University in 1979 to found its computer science department. His field was algorithms and complexity, but he had a deep admiration for AI (not a universal feeling among computer scientists for many years). He was my champion, my backstop, my partner in so very much. When I was cast down by frustration with the frank stupidity of so-called intellectuals around AI, he was the one who had the long vision: you are right; they are wrong. Persevere!

What are the things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why? What are the things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?

I’d like to conflate those two questions because they are sides of the same coin. Facial recognition, for example, is as stark a good/bad app as they come. In the West, we consider it a grotesque invasion of privacy. In China, it’s a staple of government operations. Suppose it were suddenly introduced in places like El Salvador or Guatemala, where ordinary people have no recourse from thugs. Would we look at it differently then? (If the government’s as thuggish as the thugs, no gain there.) Deepfakes? Admirable research, but room for worse than mischief.

I long for the kind of personal assistance really smart AI can offer to ordinary people as they make their way through this very complex and stressful thing called real life. I fear the misuse such really smart AI could fall into.

I’m excited about the kinds of applications that could genuinely help people in great need. I’m thinking of the early work that allows paraplegics to control — through thought — artificial limbs. That’s university research, usually government funded. Does industry, now the nexus of much AI research, feel obliged to do anything like that? Some firms — Google, for example — allow employees to work on personal projects for some percentage of their work time. My hope is that some of those personal projects address the problems that profit-making can’t or won’t.

As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg) about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What is your position about this?

Could advanced AI have the potential to pose a danger to humanity? Yes, of course. No powerful science or technology comes into the world without such a possibility. I was amused by Musk especially, crying out as if he, solo, had discovered something new. AI researchers have been formally concerned about the dangers for at least two decades, beginning with professional committees to do just that, and have been pointing the dangers out, exploring ways they might be evaded. Stanford’s AI100 project (which has begun to study AI over a hundred year span) is only one such effort. Nearly every university of standing has at least a program, in some cases whole institutes, devoted to dangers, ethics, and other problems presented by technology, sometimes specifically AI. Those programs and institutes are also devoted to finding solutions to the problems they uncover, or evading those problems in the first place.

What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?

To prevent such concerns from materializing will demand a great collective intellectual and ethical effort. We can’t assure the public that there’s nothing to be concerned about, because it’s not so. But the real dangers don’t lend themselves to summary sound-bites or sky-is-falling pronouncements.

Have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?

I try to be as honest a reporter as I can. Machines Who Think is interesting in that regard. I was a young professor of English when I wrote that book, and I lost a tenure battle because my colleagues accused me of “selling out to the machines.” But a few years ago, I learned during an academic celebration that the book had influenced an entire generation of students, who were now senior researchers in AI. That was both surprising and gratifying. Though its science is way out of date, it’s still in print.

As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share three things that you would advise to other women in the AI space to thrive? Can you advise what is needed to engage more women in the AI industry?

It’s remarkable that an entire industry has been built almost from scratch in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century that goes out of its way to replicate medieval attitudes and practices with regard to women. How to change that? Everyone knows, but most of the people in power aren’t yet convinced change is necessary. I once asked the Nobel laureate physicist, I. I. Rabi, how long it took for his colleagues to be changed by these new ideas about quantum physics he brought back from his graduate studies in Germany. “Change?” he cried, and roared with laughter. “I had to wait for them to die!” I hope we can do better. You should ask Fei-Fei Li at Stanford this question. She can surely answer it better than I can, engaged as she has been with the organization she helped found, AI4All, aimed at bringing about diversity in AI research.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?

“And wherefore was it glorious?” That needs some explanation. It’s part of a long passage from the end of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. “And wherefore was it glorious? Not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because it was full of dangers and terror; because, at every new incident, your fortitude was to be called forth, and your courage exhibited; because danger and death surrounded, these dangers you were to brave and overcome. For this was it a glorious, for this was it an honorable undertaking.” My husband long ago gave me a calligraphy: “And wherefore was it glorious?” to hang over my desk. It stiffens my spine when necessary.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

My ideal movement isn’t original. I want to see an end to grotesque economic inequality. That means that poor people get to share in the bounty that AI could bring us even as rich people do, that wages between women and men are equalized. I suspect much else of great good would follow from that.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I have Twitter and Facebook accounts, but the place you can see me most active is on The WELL, one of the first social media forums. It isn’t free, but then no ads, and nobody tracks and sells your data to the world. It’s deliciously old-fashioned in that discussions are substantive and wide-ranging, and anonymity is not permitted. It’s an oasis of adulthood in an infantile desert.

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