The field of computer science is not having a very good month.
John McCarthy, pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence and inventor of the Lisp programming language, has passed away.
“Uncle” John McCarthy was a legendary figure at MIT, a time which is thoroughly chronicled in the book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. It was during his time at MIT that McCarthy created the Lisp language, which remains one of the oldest programming languages still in use today. Along with Marvin Minsky, McCarthy founded what would later be known as the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (MIT CSAIL). McCarthy later started the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) when he left MIT to become a professor at Stanford.
Beyond his AI work and Lisp itself, McCarthy was behind some important ideas in computer science. McCarthy invented garbage collection (as part of his development of Lisp) and conducted the initial research on time-sharing systems. Today, most computer users run multi-user operating systems, and many modern programming languages implement garbage collection. McCarthy’s 1961 speech on time-sharing systems, in which he compared computing time to utilities like electricity and water, very closely resemble the modern world of cloud computing with services like Amazon AWS.
Lisp and its many dialects remain dominant in the field of artificial intelligence, and people continue to develop new Lisp dialects (a notable recent example being Clojure).
Paul Graham’s Roots of Lisp essay is required reading today.
Here is a 1984 broadcast featuring McCarthy along with other prominent computer scientists in the AI field:
And here is McCarthy speaking at the SAIL (Stanford AI Lab) Reunion, talking about the origins of SAIL: