Monday, October 24, 2011


(setq lisp '(a four letter word))

Word reaches us today of the death of John McCarthy, a computer science professor who, among other notable achievements, coined the term "Artificial Intelligence" and created the computer programming language known as Lisp.  His passing marks the third major technology pioneer to depart us in recent weeks.

John McCarthy is probably even less known than Dennis Richie was - but his work has left an equally powerful mark on the technologies we use today.  All of us know, at least in broad terms, what Artificial Intelligence (AI) is, but few of us understand the mathematical underpinnings that McCarthy brought to the field.  It is because of his work in AI that we have natural language processors, such as Siri, in phones today.

But this is not the only way he has influenced modern technology.  Lisp, the language he created, has been ridiculed for years for a strange syntaxual style involving prefix notation and excessive parenthesis.  (It has often been joked that it was an algorithm standing for "Lots of Idiotic Stupid Parenthesis".)  And yet, the mathematical theory behind Lisp has been used in many modern programming languages - not least of all JavaScript, which is at the heart of every "Web 2.0" web page currently written.

When I spoke of Richie, I talked about how code could dance.  And while there is almost no similarity between a program written in C and a program written in Lisp, McCarthy brought forth a language and a discipline that urged the same thing.  Most computer scientists never gave Lisp much thought - but those that did understood the power, elegance, and beauty behind the language, and are introducing those ideas to a new generation.

McCarthy came from the days when a computer scientists was actually a scientist.  Discovering the mathematical "laws" that existed in the world that they were helping to create.  He reminds us that there is always more to create... and to discover.