(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.”

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The Future of Deep Learning Is Photonic

Computing with light could slash the energy needs of neural networks

10 min read
Image of a computer rendering.

This computer rendering depicts the pattern on a photonic chip that the author and his colleagues have devised for performing neural-network calculations using light.

Alexander Sludds

Think of the many tasks to which computers are being applied that in the not-so-distant past required human intuition. Computers routinely identify objects in images, transcribe speech, translate between languages, diagnose medical conditions, play complex games, and drive cars.

The technique that has empowered these stunning developments is called deep learning, a term that refers to mathematical models known as artificial neural networks. Deep learning is a subfield of machine learning, a branch of computer science based on fitting complex models to data.

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