Oliver G. Selfridge ’45
Oliver G. Selfridge ’45, an innovator in early computer science and artificial intelligence, died Wednesday in Boston. He was 82.
The cause was injuries suffered in a fall on Sunday at his home in nearby Belmont, Mass., said his companion, Edwina L. Rissland.
Credited with coining the term “intelligent agents,” for software programs capable of observing and responding to changes in their environment, Selfridge theorized about far more, including devices that would not only automate certain tasks but also learn through practice how to perform them better, faster and more cheaply.
Eventually, he said, machines would be able to analyze operator instructions to discern not just what users requested but what they actually wanted to occur, not always the same thing.
His 1958 paper “Pandemonium: A Paradigm for Learning,” which proposed a collection of small components dubbed “demons” that together would allow machines to recognize patterns, was a landmark contribution to the emerging science of machine learning.
An early enthusiast about the potential of interactive computing, Selfridge saw his ideas summarized in a famous 1968 paper, “The Computer as a Communications Device,” written by J.C.R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor and published in the journal Science and Technology.
Honoring Selfridge, the authors proposed a device they referred to as OLIVER, an acronym for On-Line Interactive Vicarious Expediter and Responder. OLIVER was one of the clearest early descriptions of a computerized personal assistant.
With four other colleagues, Selfridge helped organize a 1956 conference at Dartmouth College that led directly to creation of the field of artificial intelligence.
“Oliver was one of the founding fathers of the discipline of artificial intelligence,” said Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft researcher who is president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. “He has been well known in the field for his early and prescient writings on the challenge of endowing machines with the ability to learn to recognize patterns.”
Oliver Gordon Selfridge, a grandson of H. Gordon Selfridge, the American who founded Selfridges department store in London, was born in London on May 10, 1926. The family lost control of the business during the Depression and emigrated to the United States at the onset of World War II.
Selfridge attended Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he graduated at 19 with a degree in mathematics. After service in the Navy, he embarked on graduate study at MIT under Norbert Weiner, the pioneering theorist of computer science. He became one of Weiner’s collaborators but plunged into the working world of computer science before earning an advanced degree.
In the 1960s Selfridge was associate director for Project MAC, an early time-shared computing research project at MIT. He did much of this work at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a federally financed research center for security technology. He then worked at Bolt, Beranek & Newman, now BBN Technologies, which develops computer and communications-related technology. In 1983 he became chief scientist for the telecommunications company GTE.
He began advising the nation’s national security leaders in the 1950s, among other tasks serving on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and the Scientific Advisory Board of the National Security Agency.
His first marriage, to Allison Gilman Selfridge, and his second, to Katherine Bull Selfridge, ended in divorce. Besides his companion, his survivors include their daughter, Olivia Selfridge Rissland of Belmont; three children from his first marriage, Peter Selfridge of Bethesda, Md.; Mallory Selfridge of Eastford, Conn.; and Caroline Selfridge of Saratoga, Calif.; a sister, Jennifer Selfridge MacLeod of Princeton Junction, N.J.; and six grandchildren.
Along with producing scholarly papers and technical books, Selfridge wrote “Fingers Come in Fives,” “All About Mud” and “Trouble With Dragons,” all books for children. At his death he was working on a series of books he hoped might one day become an arithmetic equivalent of summer reading projects for schoolchildren.
Selfridge never stopped theorizing, speaking and writing on what he saw as the future of artificial intelligence.
“I want an agent that can learn and adapt as I might,” he once told a meeting organized by IBM. Such an agent would “infer what I would want it to do, from the updated purposes it has learned from working for me,” he went on, and “do as I want rather than the silly things I might say.”