John McCarthy, Creator of Lisp
Written by Historian   
Tuesday, 25 October 2011

John McCarthy, the man who first coined the term "Artificial Intelligence"  and who invented the Lisp programming language died, aged 84, on October 23, 2011.

The first use of the term "Artificial Intelligence" came in John McCarthy's proposal for a two-month, ten-man workshop to be carried out at Dartmouth College in 1956. This event went ahead, with Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon, Nathaniel Rochester, Arthur Samuel, Allen Newell, Herbert Simon, Trenchard More, Ray Solomonoff and Oliver Selfridge, and is considered as "the birth" of AI.

McCarthy went on to create LISP. motivated by his

"desire for an algebraic list processing language for artificial intelligence work",

His own papers on the History of LISP,  are available on the Stanford University website and are accessible via his Home Page.

McCarthy was part of the Stanford faculty for almost four decades.He initially moved there in 1953 from Princeton where he had done his PhD. In 1962 he helped found the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL). He was appointed Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Stanford in 2001 and continued to be interested in its artificial intelligence research even though he might disagree with the direction it was going in. According to Daphne Koller, a professor in SAIL:

"He believed in artificial intelligence in terms of building an artifact that could actually replicate human level intelligence, and because of this, we was very unhappy with a lot AI today, which provides some very useful applications but focuses on machine learning."

Sebastian Thrun, who revived SAIL in 2003 and admits that McCarthy would regularly tell him what he was doing is wrong, considers that in the long run, when AI research succeeds in understanding human reasoning,  McCarthy's point of view will predominate, commenting:

"When it came to artificial intelligence, he was a philosopher."

Peter Norvig, who with Thrun is currently expanding the reach of AI by teaching an online version of the introductory Standford AI class, said of McCarthy in relation to LISP:

He was the first one to really put the essence of computing into a simple programming language, and that had a big effect on a lot of people."

While his legacy includes many things, including multi-tasking, it is LISP that arguably is best known among programmers and among AI students and practitioners. Students, in particular, have long thought of the deeply nested brackets so characteristic of LISP as being some sort of torture by parentheses. Today, LISP is still highly regarded as a language type and it has influenced many modern languages such as JavaScript and Clojure.

Even though the initial reaction to LISP is often horror most programmers find it addictive once they get beyond the initial experience. It is an example of a language that has few rules and few facilities but once you understand it seems powerful and extensible. LISP makes you understand that you can do a lot with very little.

The classic xkcd cartoon summarizes this perfectly:


LISP may be over fifty years old and one of the first computer languages - Fortran, for example, is just one year older - but it is still a force in the way we think about programming.



John McCarthy
September 4, 1927 - October 24, 2011


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