Monday, October 24, 2011

Tough Month for Computer People

I assume you all know about the passing of Steve Jobs. Since his death earlier this month, his face has appeared on every magazine in the country, it seems. In the tech world, he has long had a very nuanced and mixed reputation -- smart, impulsive, controlling, brilliant, obnoxious, insufferable. The news reports this month seem to be focusing exclusively on the positive, heralding him as the Thomas Edison of our time. Like him or hate him, he had an undeniably huge impact on the technological world. It was a sad loss for my field.

Within days of Jobs' passing, the tech world lost another icon, a man named Dennis Ritchie. If you don't work in technology, you likely don't know Ritchie. He wasn't flashy like Jobs was. He didn't lead a company or have much of a reputation outside of technology circles, but he had an enormous impact on the technology that allowed someone like Jobs to create the products that we all take for granted today. Ritchie was instrumental in creating the C programming language, which provides the basis for much of the software in use today, including much of the work done at Apple. Ritchie also helped to create the Unix operating system, the concepts for which provide the underpinnings of both Linux and MacOSX. If you study computer systems, you start with the work of Dennis Ritchie.

Me, I'm not a computer systems person. My field is artificial intelligence. And I just got news that the father of artificial intelligence, John McCarthy, passed away this morning. (As of me writing this, it doesn't even seem to have hit major news organizations yet, but it will.) You're even less likely to know John McCarthy's name than Dennis Ritchie, yet he is a giant in the field. McCarthy literally created the field of artificial intelligence, even coining the name at a conference he helped to organize to bring together people who had started to think about the field, some 50 years ago. And he created the Lisp programming language, a language that many people in computer science still view as the purest, most beautiful programming language ever created. I learned C before learning Lisp, but Lisp was the first language that really spoke to me and made me realize the potential of computer science. Have you been hearing about how Jobs was a genius for adding Siri to the iPhone? Siri is only possible because of McCarthy. I have probably read more work by McCarthy than any other computer scientist. I heard him speak numerous times. I had lunch with him a few times. I consulted with him about my dissertation. He was huge in the field, and huge for me personally.

A very sad day, capping a very sad month. RIP John.

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