Kenneth M. Sayre, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and an early pioneer in the study of artificial intelligence, has died at the age of 94.
Sayre, a Notre Dame faculty member for 56 years, was known for his teaching and research in a wide range of fields, including cybernetics, information theory, philosophy of mind, environmental philosophy, Plato and epistemology. He is the author of 14 books, editor or co-editor of five more and has published more than 50 articles in professional journals.
“With Ken’s death, we have lost a remarkable friend and colleague in the philosophy department,” said Paul Weithman, the Glynn Family Honors Professor of Philosophy. “Despite a teaching burden that would seem almost unbearably heavy 50 years later, Ken was a prolific publisher from the start and spearheaded a cohort of scholars who began to transform the department into the premier center of philosophical work it is today.
“Those of us who teach philosophy at Notre Dame today owe an incalculable debt to those who effected this transformation, of which Ken was one of the very first.”
Born in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, in 1928, Sayre spent two years in the US Navy before earning a degree in philosophy and mathematics from Grinnell College in Iowa. His interest in AI began during his PhD at Harvard University, when he was working on an air defense system at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.
In 1958 he joined the Notre-Dame faculty, and four years later he received a grant from the National Science Foundation for research simulating mental processes that would combine science with philosophy.
After winning a second grant to support this research, the university established the Philosophical Institute for Artificial Intelligence in 1965, of which Sayre was director. In the same year he published Recognition: A Study in the Philosophy of Artificial Intelligenceand began lecturing and appearing in the media to discuss issues related to cybernetics and automation.
For many years his research involved developing computer software that could recognize handwriting, based on his theory that “understanding a type of human behavior and our ability to simulate it go hand in hand.” His work led to, that he recognized a key problem that became known as the “Sayre paradox”—a cursive word cannot be recognized without being segmented and cannot be segmented without being recognized—that continued to be a focus of handwriting recognition technology in the decades that followed .
After the Vietnam War, Sayre shifted his focus to ethical and social issues. Sayre led an NSF-funded interdisciplinary team that included 11 Notre Dame faculty from all five colleges, a nuclear engineer, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and others on an in-depth study of energy company decision-making and values. The work resulted in a book on the subject and another volume, Ethics and problems of the 21st centurywith essays by moral philosophers.
He taught and researched until his retirement in 2014, the same year he published Adventures in philosophy at Notre Damea book describing the history and development of his department.
Sayre married Lucille M. Shea in 1958 and they had three children together – Gregory, Christopher and Jeffrey. Lucille died in a car accident in 1980. In 1983 he married Patricia A. White, with whom he had a son, Michael.
Condolences can be sent to Patti Sayre, 910 W. Weber Square, South Bend, IN 46617.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be sent to St. Margaret’s House, 117 N Lafayette Blvd., South Bend, IN 46601, or Our Lady of the Road Catholic Workers, 744 S. Main St., South Bend, IN 46601.