John McCarthy, creator of Lisp programming language, dies at 84

Also a pioneer in artificial intelligence, McCarthy is credited with having coined the term in 1955.

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John McCarthy, creator of the Lisp programming language.


John McCarthy, the creator of the Lisp programming language and a pioneer in artificial intelligence, has died. He was 84.

McCarthy died Monday, Stanford University's School of Engineering announced in a tweet. McCarthy invented Lisp, a program that became the language of choice for AI, in 1958 while at MIT and published its design in the 1960 paper Recursive Functions of Symbolic Expressions and Their Computation by Machine, Part I. One of the oldest high-level programming languages (second only to Fortran), Lisp is still in use today.

McCarthy said he felt there were aspects of human intelligence that could be described precisely enough that a machine could be programmed to simulate it.

"If a machine can do a job, then an automatic calculator can be programmed to simulate the machine," he wrote in a 1955 research proposal on the topic. "The speeds and memory capacities of present computers may be insufficient to simulate many of the higher functions of the human brain, but the major obstacle is not lack of machine capacity, but our inability to write programs taking full advantage of what we have."

McCarthy is also credited with coining the term "artificial intelligence" in that proposal, describing it as "the science and engineering of making intelligent machines."

"I came up with the name when I had to write the proposal to get research support for the conference from the Rockefeller Foundation," he told CNET News in 2006. "And to tell you the truth, the reason for the name is, I was thinking about the participants rather than the funder."

McCarthy was born in Boston in 1927 to immigrant socialist parents, who moved frequently during the Depression. During his teens, he taught himself mathematics by studying the textbooks used at Catltech when his family lived in Los Angeles.

When McCarthy enrolled at Caltech, he was allowed to forgo the first two years of mathematics curriculum. He would earn a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Caltech in 1948 and a Ph.D in mathematics from Princeton in 1951.

McCarthy joined the Stanford faculty in 1962 after short appointments at Princeton, Dartmouth and MIT. He retired in 2000.

McCarthy won the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery in 1972 and the National Medal of Science in 1991.