26 October 2011

We mourn three giants in October 2011

Three great men have passed away this month, all leave huge influence behind them on humanity and our continued journey in our use of tools. They contributed to the core foundational principles of computing, and to the design of products that led to the widespread adoption of the resulting technologies by the general public. I think software is a very strange thing, that we don't consider too often, layers of abstraction and tools that allow the creation of digital artefacts that change our lives. Of course hardware is needed too, but software itself must surely be studied more in social sciences as one of humanity's most productive inventions, not yet equal to natural language in impact on our history, but harnessing our natural linguistic abilities and turning them towards an engineering purpose - pure magic. Perhaps more accurately software should be seen as the latest incarnation of mathematics, our first artificial language, made alive through the ability to actually execute on hardware. In any case, we stand on the shoulders of giants.

The BBC reported this week on the death of John McCarthy, arguably the founder of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the creator of LISP, still one of my favourite programming languages. He died 24th October 2011, at the age of 84. See also the Guardian Obituary. AI was my first love in computing, and I have huge respect for the power and simplicity of LISP for exploring this vast field.

Earlier this month, the BBC also announced the death of Dennis Ritchie, creator of the C programming language and co-creator of UNIX at Bell Labs, who died on 12th October 2011. See the Guardian Obituary. I fell in love with UNIX (and the Internet) in the mid-80s in university in Keele, and it has been the stable OS underpinning nearly everything I have done with computing since then, not least the Mac OS X MacBook I am using now to type this blog post. Again it is a powerful and generative tool, based on simple principles.

Perhaps most well covered in the popular press, Steve Jobs of Apple who died at the early age of 56, on the 5th October 2011. Through arguably the most impressive range of product launches in the history of computing, he has driven the adoption of the key technologies in computing by the general public, opening up the excitement and wonder of the potential for these technologies to all of us, not just the academics. See the Guardian Obituary. I love my iPod, iPhone and iPad as well as my OS X machines, and I love the fact that computing was democratised by the personal computer.

We will not see their likes again, to paraphrase what we say in Irish.

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