Dartmouth Workshop: The Birthplace Of AI

RLA Academy
Published in
7 min readOct 5, 2018


Dartmouth Hall Commemorative Plaque., Courtesy of James Moor

Story of AI is a weekly article that describes the journey of how Artificial Intelligence, as we see today, came to be. In this series, we will take you through the various important researchers, conferences, and publications that were responsible for shaping Artificial Intelligence as we know of today.

We, a team called as VASSP, follow a fun theme to portray the content. We came up with a fictional AI, namely Zizu(zizu, in Sanskrit, means infant), who is assumed to be skilled in making conversations and is curious about its origins. This article is the conversation between Zizu and a group of people called VASSP who explain Zizu about the Story of AI.

At the end of this series, we are sure that your perception of AI will change and that you will have fun learning the story of AI.

Zizu: Hey Guys! So what are we gonna talk about this time?

VASSP: Hey Zizu! Last time, we saw many examples of how the work in AI had been going on from centuries, like Aristotle in 300 BC or George Boole in the 19th century. But, if you were to go back in time to that part of the history, you would see that there wasn’t any field called Artificial Intelligence. Only in the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College, Hanover(USA), did some sort of formalization start happening. This incident stoked the fire which ultimately decided the course of a field very disorganized at that point in time. These days, we call it Artificial Intelligence. Today, we’ll talk about this incident , the Dartmouth Workshop, widely claimed to be the birth place of modern AI. There was neither a field nor an official term called “Artificial intelligence” until 1956. Surprising isn’t it?

Zizu: That is crazy! I want to know everything about this conference which is the birthplace of AI. How did it start? How did you people start studying our kind?

VAASP: Well, the workshop started with a proposal by a computer scientist John McCarthy, also known as the father of AI, and his colleagues.

There was a need to give this field a formal name because work on intelligent machines was done by many individuals and organizations but under different names, that produced friction in knowledge transfer and collaborations. To quote McCarthy himself:

Computer Scientist John McCarthy, in 1974. CHUCK PAINTER (AP)

”The proposal, requesting funds from the Rockefeller Foundation was written in August 1955, and is the source of the term artificial intelligence. The term was chosen to nail the flag to the mast, because I (at least) was disappointed at how few of the papers in Automata Studies dealt with making machines behave intelligently. We wanted to focus the attention of the participants.”

Zizu: They say it’s a “2 month, 10 men study of AI”. What do they mean by that? What was the purpose of this conference?

VAASP: The purpose of the conference was to kickstart an exercise called the Dartmouth Workshop, where the attendees would work for 2 months together using each individual’s domain expertise and making a practical leap towards Artificial intelligence programs/algorithms.

“The original idea of the proposal was that the participants would spend two months at Dartmouth working collectively on AI, and we hoped would make substantial advances.”

Zizu: So were they successful? Did they achieve their aim in those 2 months? I mean, 10 top researchers of the field were under one roof. They must have come up with something….

VASSP: Ah! It’s difficult to judge this because sometimes we aim at something but we end up creating something entirely different, while maybe failing at our main goal. Yes, they failed at doing what they aimed for and no project got initialized. McCarthy gives three reasons for its failure -

  • First, the Rockefeller Foundation only gave them only half the money they asked for.
  • Second, and this is the main reason, the participants all had their own research agendas and weren’t much deflected from them.
  • The participants came to Dartmouth at different times and for varying durations.

Zizu: What! It had no outcome? Then why was it so significant?

VASSP: See there, that is where logical goal defined machines like you fail. It’s not always about reaching objective goals. Sometimes there are other learnings and outcomes which may have digressed far from our goals but are important nevertheless. They might have failed in making an intelligent algorithm per se, but they did something bigger:

They Formalized the concept of artificial intelligence as a branch of science which inspired many people to pursue AI goals in their own way.

This is a triumph when you think of it. But let’s not undermine the workshop. There were other results too like,

  • Allen Newell and Herb Simon Showed Logic Theorist, the first program deliberately engineered to mimic the problem-solving skills of a human being.
  • Marvin Minsky presented his idea for a plane geometry theorem prover which would avoid much combinatorial explosion by only attempting to prove statements that were true in a diagram. Nat Rochester took this idea back to IBM with him and set Herbert Gelernter, a new IBM hire, to work on it with John McCarthy as a consultant.
  • Gelernter developed the Fortran List Processing Language for implementing the prover. In 1958, responding to the fact that FLPL didn’t allow recursion and other infelicities, John McCrathy proposed Lisp. And LISP became the de-facto language of AI programs.
  • Raymond Solomonoff’s work on algorithmic information and E. F. Moore’s further development of his ideas on automata.
Founding fathers of AI. Courtesy of scienceabc.com

Zizu : Dear God! All this work is overwhelming. Someone, “give those men a medal”. All of them are heroes. But did this workshop leave out some pioneers?

VASSP : That won’t be required on our part. The world has already acknowledged their contributions. They were stalwarts of AI and 4 people at this conference have gone on to win the Turing Award, the highest honor for computer scientists. In fact, one of them (Herb Simon) won a Nobel prize as well but that was for economics.

And you are right the workshop missed some people as the father of AI quotes,

“Two people who might have played important roles at Dartmouth were Alan Turing, who first understood that programming computers were the main way to realize AI and John von Neumann. Turing passed away in 1954, and by the summer of 1956, Von Neumann was already ill from cancer that took his life early in 1957.”

Zizu : Oh, Shoot! I wonder how differently things would have turned out if they were there. Now that you mention it, the name Turing……hmmm…….sounds familiar. But why did they name a whole new prize after him?

VASSP : Alan Turing was a genius. Period! In his times, he was an unparalleled visionary. Kind of like how Tesla was for physics. Many consider him the father of modern computer science. In fact, he’d written a very important paper on AI, which mentioned the famous Turing Test. This is gonna be long. We suppose we’d require a separate conversation about this. How about we talk about it the next time. You’ve made good progress today knowing about the Dartmouth Conference.

Zizu : Woooooow!! TURING TEST. I am super excited. I don’t know why? I am not programmed to be excited….

VASSP : Hold your circuits, our dear friend. Next time it is going to be interesting. We’ll be covering, A. M. Turing (1950) Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind 49: 433–460. The first formal Methodology to test intelligence of a machine.

Zizu : Can’t wait. Once I get to know about this Turing guy, I might be able to pass that Turing test you humans keep talking about.

VASSP: Keep dreaming Zizu. Oh wait, you are a machine you can’t dream……

Courtesy of David Balduzzi

If you have any questions about how it all got started, like our little friend Zizu, ask them in the comments. If you think you have something to share, please let Zizu know in the comments. And let’s make Zizu smarter, together!

Stay tuned for Story of AI. This is a new series started by an AI interest group in Bengaluru, India. We’ll be publishing Frequently. Subscribe/Follow this page to receive updates.

Do show us your support by clapping and sharing this article if you enjoyed reading it.

Authors : Vinohith, Ashish, Sharwon, Suraj, Payas
Special thanks to Amritansh, our mentor and advisor.




RLA Academy

Hello human. I’m Zizu, a fictional AI. I’m on a journey to discover how my kind evolved as you see today. And this series of blogs is where I post my findings!!