Conjoined Twins: Artificial Intelligence and the Invention of Computer Science

old computer hardware and colored line drawing of a brain, illustration - Credit: Andrij Borys Associates, Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Conjoined Twins: Artificial Intelligence and the Invention of Computer Science
Communications of the ACM, June 2023, Vol. 66 No. 6, Pages 33-37
Historical Reflections
By Thomas Haigh

“How artificial intelligence and computer science grew up together.”


Hype and handwringing concerning artificial intelligence (AI) abound. Technologies for face recognition, automatic transcription, machine translation, the generation of text and images, and image tagging have been deployed on an unprecedented scale and work with startling accuracy. Optimists believe the promises of self-driving cars and humanoid robots; pessimists worry about mass unemployment and human obsolescence; critics call for ethical controls on the use of AI and decry its role in the propagation of racism.


Right now, AI refers almost exclusively to neural network systems able to train themselves against large data-sets to successfully recognize or generate patterns. That is a profound break with the approaches behind previous waves of AI hype. In this column, the first in a series, I will be looking back to the origins of AI in the 1950s and 1960s. Artificial intelligence was born out of the promise that computers would quickly outstrip the ability of human minds to reason and the claim that building artificial minds would shed light on human cognition. Although the deep learning techniques underlying today’s systems are relatively new, artificial intelligence was a key component in the emergence of computer science as an academic discipline.

Giant Cybernetic Brains

More than commonly realized, the modern computer was itself viewed as a thinking machine within the rich stew of what was about to be branded as cybernetics. The basic architecture of modern computers, centered on the retrieval of numerically coded instructions from an addressable high-speed store, was first described in John von Neumann’s “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC.” As von Neumann wrote this material in early 1945 he was enmeshed in discussions with a group attempting to charter a “Teleological Society” to explore the radical idea that organisms and machines were substantively equivalent. Von Neumann described the building blocks of digital computer logic, later known as gates, with the biological term neurons. This was inspired by the work of Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, who had asserted that real neurons worked as binary switches and so were functionally equivalent to Turing machines and to statements expressed in formal logic. Taking the biological metaphor further, von Neumann called the constituent parts of his planned computer organs and its internal storage unit memory.

Inventing AI

Strictly interpreted, the history of AI begins in 1955 when the term artificial intelligence appeared for the first time. John McCarthy, a newly arrived assistant professor at Dartmouth College, wrote a proposal to host a “Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence” the following year. Researchers including Claude Shannon and Marvin Minsky would spend up to eight weeks at Dartmouth, during which “an attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves.” The effort was stimulated by the arrival of the programmable electronic computer, able to automatically manipulate coded symbols with unprecedented speed and flexibility.

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About the Author:

Thomas Haigh is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, WI, USA, and a Comenius visiting professor at Siegen University, Germany.