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My conversation with the great John McCarthy

Back when I was a sophomore at Stanford, I cold emailed John McCarthy (inventor of Lisp, one of the godfathers of AI) and asked if I could meet him and learn about his life and perspective. To my pleasant surprise, he was happy to meet with me. A week later I biked over to his house and had a very interesting two hour conversation with him.

McCarthy told me a lot about his career and his transition from MIT to Stanford. What struck me the most though was what he had to say about Lisp. Lisp was a complete afterthought for McCarthy. He just needed a language for doing AI research, his true passion. Since the languages available at that time were difficult to use, he created a language that he felt would make him the most productive in his research. This reminds me a lot about how Isaac Newton invented the tool of calculus to further his research in gravity. Calculus transformed mathematics in its own right, and the innovations of Lisp are still reverberating through the programming language world. Yet both were not ends in themselves, but means towards larger goals. Lisp, one of the most abstract languages you can use, was created with a purely practical motivation.

I consider it a privilege to have gotten to speak with such a legendary person. I wish I had a transcript of our conversation, but alas I don't. I'm still surprised at the ease at which I was able to meet him, but ultimately I'm glad I took advantage of an opportunity most people don't realize is available to them.

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January 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTwitted by sunayana

[...] My conversation with the great John McCarthy — thoughts from the … [...]

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