You may have seen in the news the other day that Google is buying ITA. It’s an interesting news item for the reason others have noted. ITA wrote the software which is at the heart of scheduling flights for most of the major airlines. It’s obvious why Google would like to get access to these algorithms and datasets.
But I found the news interesting for another reason. ITA is one of the last remnants of what Cambridge was like when I was just starting out in the software business. A lot of the startups in those days were Lisp based. Examples include Lisp Machines, Symbolics, and ICAD. Most of these were spinoffs from the AI Lab. Those were interesting times. Lisp was allowing us to tackle problems that were unimaginable with the more mainline computer languages of the day. During the late 80’s and early 90’s, as the performance of commodity processors like the MIPS and the x86 skyrocketed, a lot of the innovative techniques that were developed in Lisp got ported to other languages and Lisp fell out of favor. ITA is one of the last survivors of this wave of extinctions.
Interestingly, Lisp (and Lisp-like) languages are really hot again these days. Now that we’re reaching the limits of a single processor and being forced to go multicore for more performance, some of the advantages of Lisp (and similar languages) are a big win again. It seems like it’s always been the proper tool for conquering new computing territory.
If you’ve been around Cambridge much during the last decade or so, you also know ITA for a different reason. They’re famous for their hiring ads which feature these interesting puzzles.
Living in and around Cambridge for all these years has certainly been interesting. When I first moved here in 1976, it was all mechanical engineering companies like Draper and Polaroid. By the time I graduated, they were moving to the background and it was all computer companies. Now of course, those are mostly gone and its all biology.
I really enjoyed Paul Graham’s essay on the message that cities send. He really nailed Cambridge when he said:
Cambridge as a result feels like a town whose main industry is ideas, while New York’s is finance and Silicon Valley’s is startups.
We seem to have a tendency to lose interest once something becomes a solved problem. We all want to move on to new interesting problems. The conversations at parties always circle around things we’ve learned, not things we’ve made.
But anyways, it’s nice to see a piece of the old days in the news again.