By Nathan Fay • September 11, 2019

How Philanthropy Helped Create Modern-Day Artificial Intelligence: A Precision Philanthropy Perspective

Nathan Fay, AAAC Member and Associate Vice President of Prospect Development & Strategy, City of HopeArtificial Intelligence is hot. There is no denying that the era of Big Data has reinvigorated the promise of applying artificial intelligence to solve all kinds of challenges facing the world and business. Imaginations are pondering the possibilities of what humanity may be able to accomplish. But where did this technology come from? Where did the term artificial intelligence come from? Who coined it and when and for what purposes? The answers may surprise you.

Back in 2017, when I was researching the history of AI for my work on “Precision Philanthropy,” (a phrase I coined to refer to the application of artificial intelligence in the nonprofit sector) I discovered 60+ year old documents that contain the answers to the above questions. To my surprise, the origin story of artificial intelligence has philanthropy at the center.

In 1955, Dartmouth Professor, John McCarthy, wanted to get a group of leading scientists and researchers together to see if they could crack the code of thought and write programming that would allow a computer to artificially simulate human rationality and certain tasks that only humans could accomplish. He had the vision for a summer working group made up of leading scientists of his day that would work together to crack the code of human thought from a multidisciplinary approach.

There was one big problem. He didn’t have the money to see his vision to fruition. So what did he do? Give up? No way. He turned to philanthropy and met with leaders from the Rockefeller Foundation to pitch his vision and hopefully get the funding to make it a reality.

On a cool, drizzly, June day in New York City in 1955, Dr. John McCarthy and Dr. Claude Shannon met with the Rockefeller Foundation to gauge interest and learn how to best write a successful proposal for their summer research project. At this point they had no idea what to call it and no idea if it would inspire the foundation leaders to fund them. Additionally, they were having a hard time explaining their work to the foundation leaders in a way that was easy to understand.

Armed with the knowledge gained from this meeting, McCarthy and Shannon crafted a proposal and submitted it to Dr. Robert Morrison, Director for Medical and Biological Research at the Rockefeller Foundation a few months later. The title of their submission: “A Proposal for the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence.”

Dated, August 31, 1955, this is the first known use of the term “Artificial Intelligence.” Not only did this term grab the attention of the Rockefeller Foundation, but it has subsequently captured the imaginations of the world. There were a few more back and forth negotiations between the foundation and McCarthy, but eventually he did receive funding for his summer research project. The work that he and the others that gathered that summer accomplished formed the foundation for almost all subsequent work that has taken place since in the field of AI.

A quote from the original proposal: “The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. 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. We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.”

Not only do we owe a debt of gratitude to the pioneers of AI; J McCarthy, M. Minsky, N. Rochester and C. Shannon, but we also owe a debt of gratitude to philanthropy for funding the dreams of the past so that they become the realities of tomorrow.

Given that “artificial intelligence” was birthed through philanthropy, it is only right that the nonprofit sector be able to benefit as much as, if not more than, the for profit sector from the use of this technology. This investment should be paying off dividends for the nonprofit sector. We are at a critical juncture in the history of the nonprofit sector. Never has there been a time more ripe for the use of artificial intelligence technologies such as natural language processing, machine learning and neural networks than now. We have the data. We have the basic underlying technology. We now need leadership from across the sector to invest more in applying AI to our work. We need leaders to come together and unite under the umbrella of artificial intelligence and work together to establish best practices amongst its use including the ethics of AI.

In order to help accomplish this feat, a group of thought leaders in the nonprofit sector came together and formed the Artificial Intelligence in Advancement Advisory Council. Group members are: Armin Afsahi, Dan Allen, Marijana Radic Boone, Evelyn Buchanan, Jim Dicker, Nathan Fay, Karin George, Rod Grabowski, Laurel Lyle, Adam Martel, Rich Palmer, Kim Rich, Reed Sheard, Christopher Tobin, Colleen Whelan and David Woodruff.

On July 22nd, 2019, the group released the first State of AI in Advancement Report which can be found here:

AAAC State of AI in Advancement Report

If you are interested in reading the historic documents surrounding the Artificial Intelligence proposal by McCarthy, I collected them all and put them into one pdf that I can send you via email if you'd like. They are thrilling to read and showcase how integral philanthropy is to the evolution of society.


About the Author:

Nathan Fay is a best-selling author, international speaker and leading data figure. He currently serves as Associate Vice President of Prospect Development at City of Hope, one of the nation’s top National Cancer Institutes. Previously, he spent over 11 years in various roles at Stanford University, including 7 years as Director of Data Analytics and Prospect Research for the Children’s Hospital.

He is a sought after speaker and speaks around the world on topics such as artificial intelligence, philosophy and the intersection of the machine and human. He is a scholar of philosophical systems with an emphasis on applying philosophy and technology to create a more socially just society.

He coined the term “Precision Philanthropy” to refer to a cybernetic structure that utilizes artificial intelligence to dramatically enhance efficiency in the nonprofit sector. He is the author of Precision Prospect Development and Lightning Strikes: Essential Writings of Nikola Tesla. He currently serves on the Artificial Intelligence in Advancement Advisory Council.