Stanford confirmed that Prof. John McCarthy passed away peacefully at the age of 84. John was a familiar figure when we lived on the Stanford campus, bicycling around with his shock of white hair and beard - every bit the mathematician-professor-wizard (see Wikipedia entry) outlined in "What the Dormouse Said". John leaves a huge legacy of inventing Lisp (the programming language) and being one of the pioneers of AI (Artificial Intelligence) among his other work in formal systems and laying out an early vision of utility computing. See this little paper from 1958 for some of the glimmers of what that early vision of AI was about: 1958 Paper on the Advice Taker and Artificial Intelligence and his little FAQ on AI
The last time I saw him was at the O'Reilly Etech conference in 2008 (pictured above). John was ever the skeptic of the modern AI approaches embodied by Google and other machine learning efforts, holding out for a lofier vision of AI embedded in the early symbolic approaches that we are still many years from achieving.
My personal career change from chemical engineering to software happened in part due to a math class called "The Garden of Lisp" taught by a very enthusiastic Prof. Richard Stark at USF who'd spent some time with John. The class went from logic to lambda calculus to the frontiers of computer science at a dizzying pace and Stark related with relish some of the lore of math and computer science involving heady stories of characters like Alonzo Church, John Nash and of course, John McCarthy. The class animated an obscure subject and inspired my early adventures as a Lisp programmer. In that sense, I owe John McCarthy for the first and best business title I carried as a Lisp programmer at an AI company in Silicon Valley - "Knowledge Engineer" - Never been able to beat that one. Thanks John!