I guess it’s that time of the century, where all the greats start to topple off this mortal coil. For those of you reading this who are oblivious to the history of technology a chap called John McCarthy died a few days ago. He was 84.
The popular media have been hailing him as the guy who coined the term Artificial Intelligence. Sure, that’s pretty cool, but do you know what’s cooler? He is the guy that designed the LISP language (List Processor). He took a job at IBM in 1958 where he was hired to create a set of requirements for doing symbolic computation. In those days there weren’t really any computer programming languages. It was really early days.
What is phenomenal is that the language he designed then is still extremely popular today. He worked on it thru-out his career and it wasn’t until 1992 that the final definition of the language was agreed and a standard published. The first draft was in 1965. That’s how much work has gone into it. Lots.
Only pretty nerdy people know what LISP is. It looks extremely complex (and is) but as you can see in this XKCD cartoon every few generations another group of uber-nerds discover it and start to use it (out of choice).
It’s beauty is that it’s very fast. The horror of it is that it uses these things ‘()’ like they are going out of fashion. It does have practical use outside of AI academia, Yahoo’s shopping cart was originally written in LISP. There is quite an interesting article on the topic here.
So, thank you John McCarthy, without your work I don’t expect I would have Siri on my iPhone 4S and frankly, I find Siri extremely useful.