Folklore says that things come in threes. Prof John McCarthy, Stanford University, passed away on the 24th of this month. Before that, we said goodbye to Dennis Ritchie. He was found dead on Oct 12th. Steve Jobs died on Oct 5th. It’s been not a very good month for people related to computers and computer science.
Ritchie was the creator of the C programming language and the co-creator of the Unix operating system. He received the Turing Award in 1983 (and many other prestigious computer science related awards.) McCarthy was also a winner of the Turing Award (1971) and a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence (indeed, he coined the term “artificial intelligence.”) Both were towering figures in computer science.
McCarthy is a hero of sorts to me. In the 1990s, I had briefly corresponded with him on some matter related to computer science. Unfortunately, I have lost copies of that exchange of emails. Recently though I wrote to him to say that I continue to admire the wisdom contained in his signature line: “Those who refuse to do arithmetic are doomed to speak nonsense.” He replied.
I think that much of the world’s troubles spring from that singular failing — the inability or the reluctance to do arithmetic. We would all be better off if we learned how to do arithmetic. More importantly, we would all be better off if those who make public policy did a bit of arithmetic.
To be very clear, by doing arithmetic I mean doing basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division on numbers — things one should have learned in primary school. You don’t need to solve partial differential equations or compute the third derivative of some complex functions. Just plain old-fashioned arithmetic which often does not even require paper and pencil. All you have to do is to get ball-park estimates of costs and benefits of some proposed course of action.
Steve Jobs no doubt had a pretty large impact on the world but my sense is that people like Ritchie and McCarthy make a more profound difference to the world in the long run. Jobs brings a new shiny ball to the game but the McCarthys of the world change the rules of the game for the better.
Goodbye Prof McCarthy. I will never shirk from doing arithmetic and forever be on guard against speaking nonsense.