(Remembering (John (McCarthy (1927–2011))))

October has been a tough month for the computing community. On the heels of the deaths of both Steve Jobs and Dennis Ritchie, Stanford has confirmed that John McCarthy, creator of the programming language Lisp and a founder of AI, passed away on Sunday. He was 84.

McCarthy’s influence began at Dartmouth, where he coined the term “artificial intelligence” while planning the first conference in the field, held in 1956. Though he later wished he had named the field differently—“computational intelligence” would have been more apt, if less alluring—McCarthy went on to make significant contributions to the field, creating Lisp, the programming language of choice for many AI applications.

Developed in 1958 during McCarthy’s short stay at MIT, the parenthesis-cloaked Lisp is notable for capturing computational complexity with symbolic expressions instead of numbers and for its list-based structure—in McCarthy’s words, it gave rise to an “elegant mathematical system as well as a practical programming language.”

Lisp has experienced remarkable longevity: It is the second-oldest programming language still in use (after Fortran), and has sprouted off a number of new dialects, including Arc, Nu, and Clojure. There’s a great deal of reverence for Lisp and McCarthy floating around the Internet right now, which I’ll leave to you to peruse, but the sentiment is perhaps best reflected by this xkcd comic:


McCarthy spent the majority of his career at Stanford, where he helped establish the Stanford AI Laboratory (SAIL); he continued to teach computer science at Stanford after his retirement. His goal remained to get an AI system to pass the Turing test by focusing on knowledge representation and reasoning abilities, and he was discouraged by a seeming shift toward the use of brute force approaches in AI.  

Over the course of his career, McCarthy was honored with the Turing Award for Computing Machinery (1971), the Kyoto Prize in Information Science (1988), and the National Medal of Science (1991). Just this year, he was inducted into IEEE Intelligent Systems’ AI Hall of Fame along with Marvin Minsky, who helped him found MIT’s Project MAC and co-authored the call to Dartmouth’s first AI conference. On that occasion, computer scientist Ulrich Furbach wrote, “It is hardly possible for any researcher in AI not to stand on [McCarthy’s] shoulders.”

Related Stories

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.