25 October 2011


jwz | jmc rip

You may have heard that John McCarthy died yesterday at 84. As the inventor of Lisp, the world's second-oldest programming language, and coiner of the phrase "artificial intelligence", it's fair to say that (aside from Turing) there's nobody whose contributions to computer science have had a bigger impact on my life.

(Though being a neural rather than symbolic AI guy, I might bump Frank Rosenblatt above McCarthy on my list of influences.)

I never got around to commenting on the passing of Dennis Ritchie last week. Like Ritchie, McCarthy is as influential as he is obscure. If I had to re-run the 20th century, but without one of either Ritchie, McCarthy or Steve Jobs, I would bench Jobs without a second thought.

Illka has some great JMC links. I had read this wonderful collection of his aphorisms before, but it is well worth re-visiting. I had not realized what an anti-Malthusian he was. He would have made a great guest for EconTalk.

PS — Paul Graham on Lisp, in 2001:
It's worth understanding what McCarthy discovered, not just as a landmark in the history of computers, but as a model for what programming is tending to become in our own time. It seems to me that there have been two really clean, consistent models of programming so far: the C model [co-invented by Ritchie] and the Lisp model. These two seem points of high ground, with swampy lowlands between them.
I'm not sure I can overstate how outsized the impact of these two men has been on the last half century.

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