It was way back in 1984 (yeah… *that* year).

I was in the middle of my university studies at ETF (now FER), the electrical and computing engineering faculty of Zagreb University. A while ago, I had gotten involved with a group of students, led by a young assistant professor, studying the intriguing field of Artificial Intelligence. More specifically, we were focusing on computer vision, and even more specifically on edge detection. Later on our small group would expand to a whole department within an NGO-like organization with the acronym OZIR. Our department, which I managed while still a student, had five teams working on, respectively, robotics, computer vision, expert systems, natural language processing and logic programming. But that came a few years later.

At the time of this story, we had little or no access to the internet. Any research papers, or indeed books, we needed to access for more than a few days, we would need to photocopy them. After a little while we were able to obtain what was to us Eldorado — an open account at a local photocopy shop, “Dupli”, located on a beautiful park in central Zagreb, Zrinjevac. So we would copy like madmen and then insert ourselves into the latest research papers and then try to implement our newfound algorithms on ancient timeshare computers at the University. Getting hold of personal computers was still a few years away.

My faculty, ETF / FER, has an 11-story main building. Each story (more or less) was a different department, and when you got out of the elevator you would be greeted by a reinforced non-transparent glass door with a sign: “Students admitted from 3–5pm.” As bizzare as that may sound, that was the norm. If you wanted to speak to a professor, you needed to show up at the right time and hope a secretary would grant you the precious access. I’ll soon explain what this has to do with the story.

As it happens, I had the opportunity to visit my parents’ friends for two weeks in the summer of ’84. They lived in Los Altos — of all places — just a quick few bus stops from Mecca, Heaven, Paradise… Stanford!

I spent a good part of those two weeks strolling around Stanford, my head spinning from the mere fact that here I was, in the center of the AI Universe. Most of that time was in the various libraries of various departments, seeking out research papers from a long list my team had prepared before I took off, and then endlessly copying those papers on photocopy machines sprinkled generously throughout. On my way back home, it’s probably a miracle I wasn’t prevented from getting on the plane with the seemingly tons and tons of papers in my suitcase.

Aside from the libraries, I made it my business to seek out the legendary departments where all this research was going on. I had taken with me, preparing carefully, a copy of National Geographic with robotics on the cover. Step by step, asking around and following the signs, I reached the office of one of the professors. This wasn’t just any professor — I was standing before God. There, in the flesh, was the man who had originally coined the term “Artificial Intelligence” at that legendary Dartmouth conference in 1956.

I was standing face to face with John McCarthy.

It could have been Mick Jagger. Or Tito. Or Bob Dylan. Or a resurrected Elvis. It wouldn’t have mattered. None of that would have equaled This. The Father was there, living and breathing and explaining to me how he was in a bit of a hurry because he needed to leave for Washington. I somehow summoned the courage to ask him to sign my copy of National Geographic, which he was more than happy to do. I could bite myself for having misplaced it somewhere in the years following but there you go.

So… whereas in Zagreb I would need to ring the doorbell at the appropriate time and hope for someone to let me in and then throw myself at the mercy of the department secretary, always watchful and taking care that students should — Heaven forbid!- disturb the staff, here I came all by my little self and met John McCarthy…

Going from that department to the next, again I walked around a bit and asked around and followed some signs and came to another office. A man was sitting at his desk, with his back to the open door where I was standing, his curly black hair blocking the view of his computer screen. I must have knocked and then said “Hello” or something like that (the door was already open when I got there) and he turned around and there before me was another God — Terry Winograd!

Terry Winograd (from Wikipedia)

At the time Winograd was best known for his pioneering work in natural language understanding and for writing one of the most famous programs of the early AI era — SHRDLU. Two years later, he would publish the book “Understanding Computers and Cognition” with a co-author, Francisco Varela. Varela himself boasts a fascinating biography. To me, at the time of this book, he was most interesting as the co-author of yet another book, originally published in Chile in 1972, with Humberto Maturana: “Autopoiesis and Cognition — The Realization of the Living”.

I was deeply fascinated by the relationship between the human mind, cognition, sensing and experiencing the world as a basis for our intelligence. It’s a bit of a long story going all the way back to Heidegger and biology and this is not the place or the format to expand, but I can certainly and heartily recommend both of these fascinating books.

Terry Winograd went on to pioneer several key concepts and technologies used today by billions of people, almost none of whom have ever heard of him. He worked on an early concept of collaborative technology (“The Coordinator”) which was an early influence on Lotus Notes and later collaboration platforms. At Stanford, he was an advisor to Larry Page and Reid Hoffman and worked on such widely used concepts, technologies and platforms as Google Page Rank and GMail. Part of his compensation was in Google shares instead of cash, so he definitely does not fall into the “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich” category :-)

He is still a Professor at Stanford, not actively teaching but advising, and was born on this day, February 24, 1946.

Happy birthday, Terry Winograd!

Technosceptic, cofounder @PerpetuumZg, @zipzg, columnist Mreza, Forbes Croatia...