Hugh Winkler holding forth on computing and the Web

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Lisp a casualty of its time

This sad editorial remark from the CLIPS architecture document, describing perceptions about Lisp within NASA around 1984:

...Despite extensive demonstrations of the potential of expert systems, few of these applications were put into regular use. This failure to provide expert systems technology within NASA’s operational computing constraints could largely be traced to the use of LISP as the base language for nearly all expert system software tools at that time. In particular, three problems hindered the use of LISP based expert system tools within NASA: the low availability of LISP on a wide variety of conventional computers, the high cost of state-of-the-art LISP tools and hardware, and the poor integration of LISP with other languages (making embedded applications difficult).

Would they encounter the same barriers today, twenty-four years later?

1. Low availability of LISP on a wide variety of conventional computers: Now we have commercial implementations and open source Lisps, working on most computers and operating systems.

2.High cost of state-of-the-art LISP tools and hardware: The hardware issue has faded away since Lisp machines gave way to general purpose computers. And Lisp is no more memory intensive than Java or .NET. Of the commercial Lisps, LispWorks is affordable for normal mortals, and certainly the Allegro products are within reach of NASA. And there are several good, free, open source CLs.

3. Poor integration of LISP with other languages: An issue only if your mindset is 1984. Nowadays, to integrate with a Lisp program, you'd treat it like any other network resource -- like an RDBMS, or a web service.

I wonder what is the state of the Lisp renaissance within NASA?

[updated to expand remark on item 2]

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