When it comes to the history of Artificial Intelligence (AI), even a simple Internet search will tell you that the defining event was “The Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence“, a summer workshop in 1956, held in Dartmouth College, United States. What is less known is the fact that, 5 years before Dartmouth, USA, there was a conference in Europe, back in 1951. The conference in Paris was “Les machines à calculer et la pensée humaine” (Calculating machines and human thinking). This can be easily considered the earliest major conference on Artificial Intelligence. Supported by the Rockefeller foundation, its participant list included the intellectual giants of the field, such as Warren Sturgis McCulloch, Norbert Wiener, Maurice Vincent Wilkes, and others.
The organizer of the conference, Louis Couffignal, was also mathematician and cybernetics pioneer, who had already published a book titled “Les machines à calculer. Leurs principes. Leur évolution.” in 1933 (Calculating machines. Their principles. Their evolution.) Another highlight from the conference was El Ajedrecista (The Chess Player), designed by Spanish civil engineer and mathematician Leonardo Torres y Quevedo. There was also a presentation based on practical experiences with the Z4 computer, designed by Konrad Zuse, and operated in ETH Zurich. The presenter was none other than Eduard Stiefel, inventor of the conjugate gradient method, among other things.
The field of AI has come a long way since 1951, and it is safe to say it’s going to penetrate into more aspects of our lives and technologies. It’s also safe to say that like many technological and scientific endeavors, progress in AI is the result of many bright minds in many different countries, and generally USA and UK are regarded as the places that contributed a lot. But it’s also important to recognize the lesser known facts such as this Paris conference in 1951, and realize the strong tradition in Europe: not only the academic, research and development track, but also the strong industrial and business tracks. Historical artifacts in languages other than English necessarily mean less recognition, but they should be a reason to cherish the diversity and variety. I believe all of these aspects combined should guide Europe in its quest for advancing the state of the art in AI, both in terms of software, hardware, and combined systems.
This article is heavily based on and inspired by the following article by Herbert Bruderer, a retired lecturer in didactics of computer science at ETH Zürich: “The Birthplace of Artificial Intelligence?“