The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

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

Lisp creator and father of AI passes away at age 84

2 min read
(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.”

The Conversation (0)

Why Functional Programming Should Be the Future of Software Development

It’s hard to learn, but your code will produce fewer nasty surprises

11 min read
A plate of spaghetti made from code
Shira Inbar

You’d expectthe longest and most costly phase in the lifecycle of a software product to be the initial development of the system, when all those great features are first imagined and then created. In fact, the hardest part comes later, during the maintenance phase. That’s when programmers pay the price for the shortcuts they took during development.

So why did they take shortcuts? Maybe they didn’t realize that they were cutting any corners. Only when their code was deployed and exercised by a lot of users did its hidden flaws come to light. And maybe the developers were rushed. Time-to-market pressures would almost guarantee that their software will contain more bugs than it would otherwise.

Keep Reading ↓Show less