The creator of Lisp and arguably the father of modern artificial intelligence, John McCarthy, died last night. He studied mathematics with the famous John Nash at Princeton and, notably, held the first “computer-chess” match between scientists in the US and the USSR. He transmitted the moves by telegraph.
McCarthy believed AI should be interactive, allowing for a give and take similar to AI simulators like Eliza and, more recently, Siri. His own labs were run in an open, free-wheeling fashion, encouraging exploration and argument. He won the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery in 1972 and the National Medal of Science in 1991.
He was born in 1927 in Boston and taught himself higher math using Caltech textbooks when his family moved to the area, allowing him to take advanced classes when he enrolled as a teenager. He received a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1951.
According to McCarthy’s own articles, he created Lisp in order to create Turing machines in the limited computing environment at his disposal.
In this month of fallen giants, it’s nice to think that McCarthy’s work lives on in the many systems – seen and unseen – that control the way we interact with computers and the Internet.
The information of his passing came first from his daughter through informal channels, and was confirmed by Stanford this afternoon.