Pamela McCorduck, Historian of Artificial Intelligence, Dies at 80
She interviewed many of the scientists who were at the heart of the field through the end of the 1970s, and she compiled a groundbreaking history of its early years.,
Pamela McCorduck, whose encounters with eminent computer scientists in the 1960s and ’70s led her to write a groundbreaking history of artificial intelligence over the field’s first 20 years, died on Oct. 18 at her home in Walnut Creek, Calif. She was 80.
Her sister, Sandra McCorduck Marona, confirmed the death but did not give a cause.
“For 60 years, I’ve lived in A.I.’s exponential,” Ms. McCorduck wrote in a memoir, “This Could Be Important: My Life and Times With the Artificial Intelligentsia” (2019). “I’ve watched computers evolve from plodding sorcerer’s apprentices to machines that can best any humans at checkers, then chess, then the guessing game, ‘Jeopardy!,’ and now the deeply complex game of Go.”
Ms. McCorduck was an English major who first ventured into the evolving world of artificial intelligence in 1960 as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, where she helped edit an influential book of academic papers about A.I. with Edward Feigenbaum and Julian Feldman, two of the field’s pioneering computer scientists.
Her next leap into A.I. was an immersive one at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where in the 1970s she taught English. Her husband, Joseph Traub, was head of the computer science department there, which included artificial intelligence luminaries like Herbert Simon, Allen Newell and Raj Reddy.
“She was dumped into this saturated milieu of the great and greatest in A.I. at Carnegie Mellon — some of the same people whose papers she’d helped us assemble — and decided to write a history of the field,” Professor Feigenbaum said in a phone interview.
The result was “Machines Who Think: A Personal Inquiry Into the History and Prospects of Artificial Intelligence” (1979), a chronicle of past attempts to mechanize thought. She also wrote about the founders of a new science who had conceived of expert systems, speech understanding, robotics, general problem-solving and game-playing machines, beginning in the mid-1950s. Their work was considered to be the first of its kind in this area.
Artificial intelligence, she wrote, “has pervaded Western intellectual history, a dream in urgent need of being realized. Work toward that end has been a splendid effort, the variety of its forms as wondrous as anything humans have conceived, its practitioners as lively a group of poets, dreamers, holy men, rascals and eccentrics as one could hope to find — not a dullard among them.”
Ms. McCorduck’s “powers of observation” and “conversational style” raised her book above others that in the years since have attempted to explain artificial intelligence to a broad audience, Philip Mirowski wrote in AI Magazine in a review of the 25th-anniversary edition of “Machines Who Think,” which included a long addendum updating A.I.’s history through 2004.
Pamela Ann McCorduck was born on Oct. 27, 1940, in Liverpool, England, as the city was being subjected to months of intense bombing by the German Luftwaffe. She left when she was 6 for the United States with her parents, Jack and Hilda (Bond) McCorduck, and her two younger siblings, who are twins.
Her father owned beauty colleges, where her mother was a beautician and teacher. The family settled first in Stamford, Conn., before moving several times. She graduated from high school in Rutherford, N.J., and received a bachelor’s degree in English composition and literature from Berkeley in 1960. Ten years later she earned a master’s in English literature at Columbia University.
“Computers & Thought,” the result of her work with Professors Feigenbaum and Feldman, was published in 1963. She called herself a “gofer” to them, but Professor Feigenbaum said she had been essential to their project. She continued her association with Professor Feigenbaum as his executive assistant for several years after he left Berkeley for Stanford University in 1965 to help start its computer science department and to direct the Stanford Computation Center.
She met Professor Traub at Stanford, and they married in 1969. (Her first marriage, to Thomas Tellefsen, had ended in divorce.) The next year they moved to Seattle, where he taught at the University of Washington; a year after that they moved to Pittsburgh. Around that time she published two novels: “Familiar Relations” (1971), the story of a family set in Liverpool in 1944, and “Working to the End” (1972), about a brilliant woman scientist in a love triangle with her brother-in-law.
At Carnegie Mellon, where she taught in the English department, Ms. McCorduck got to know the computer scientists working on artificial intelligence and became particularly close with Professor Simon, who helped pioneer the idea that computers can exhibit artificial intelligence that mirrors human thinking.
She often offered Professor Simon a glass of sherry when he walked past her house in Pittsburgh on his way home, and they discussed artificial intelligence, linguistics, music and art, she said in an oral history interview with Carnegie Mellon in 2019.
Ms. McCorduck received financial support from Carnegie Mellon to write “Computers Who Think.” She also received help from the professors and researchers she had interviewed.
“She’d say, ‘I wrote this chapter, can you can read it?'” said Dr. Reddy, who is now university professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon (and who, like Professors Feigenbaum and Simon, is a winner of the A.M. Turing Award, often called the Nobel Prize of computing). “She was interacting with all the movers and shakers of A.I. She was in the middle of it, an eyewitness to history.”
Ms. McCorduck moved to Columbia, where she taught creative writing, when Professor Traub was appointed the founding chairman of the university’s computer science department in 1979.
She continued to write; among her later books were “The Universal Machine” (1985), about the impact of computers on art, science, education and medicine; “The Rise of the Expert Company” (1988), an exploration of how companies used artificial intelligence, written with Professor Feigenbaum and Penny Nii; and “Aaron’s Code” (1990), about Harold Cohen, an abstract painter who developed a complex software program to generate works of art.
She also published two more novels, “The Edge of Chaos” in 2007 and “Bounded Rationality” in 2012.
In addition to her sister, she is survived by her brother, John, and her stepdaughters, Claudia Traub and Hillary Spector. Professor Traub died in 2015.
Ms. McCorduck had regrets about not recognizing the possibility that artificial intelligence could be misused. She voiced those regrets in “This Could Be Important,” her final book.
“A thread in my book is how naive I was — we all were — in the early days when it seemed as if more intelligence could only be like more virtue,” she told insideBigData, a website devoted to news about A.I., machine learning and data science, in 2020. “I’m especially disappointed with myself. I was a student of the humanities. How could I not have imagined that more intelligence would bring along all the usual misbehavior humans are capable of?”
She was especially concerned with facial recognition systems, which she called “a blundering tool in the hands of governments,” adding: “It will still be blundering when it improves technically. That’s really a political, not a technological problem.”