Electronic Design
Alan Kay: Computers—A Revolutionary Medium For Boosting Human Thought

Alan Kay: Computers—A Revolutionary Medium For Boosting Human Thought

Kay (2008)

The printing press was one of the most influential inventions in human history. Could universal personal computing and worldwide networking be just as significant to human thought? In the 1960s, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) established a research community to accomplish that grand goal.

Quite a bit of this dream was realized in the 1970s by the extension of this community at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) sparked by ideas from Alan Kay, Butler Lampson, Chuck Thacker, Bob Taylor, and others. These research teams were a valuable part of Kay’s professional career.

The PARC team created Alto, the forerunner of today’s personal computers (PCs). It was an outgrowth of Kay’s 1968 Dynabook concept, a compact notebook using a tablet and keyboard, a flatscreen display, a graphical user interface (GUI), and wireless networking. Kay wanted Dynabook to be a PC for children of all ages.

Kay and his fellow PARC members were pioneers in objectoriented programming (OOP), GUI windows, bit-mapped graphics, prototypes of networked workstations, the Ethernet, Internet, laser printing, and other factors that subsequently were adopted by Apple Computer, Microsoft, and the rest of the quickly growing PC and networking industry.

“Building on the previous research generation, we created a new kind of medium for boosting human thought, for amplifying human intellectual endeavor. We thought it could be as significant as Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press 500 years ago. We hoped that it would boost civilization a couple of notches the way the printing press did,” Kay said.

“The press first made the Reformation in the 16th century possible, but this was not really the qualitative change in human thought that occurred a century later,” explained Kay. “The printing press created both a way to spread ideas around and to argue about ideas in a new way. Computers and networks not just spread ideas around but allowed new ideas to be thinkable because of the unique representation properties of computers themselves.”

Kay added, “Nothing prevents unsophisticated people from trying to recreate commercial television on computers, as many commercial interests are trying to do. This is looking backwards and downwards. But looking forward and upward, the computer has revolutionized science, just as was done by the printing press. The majority of all science being done today could not be done without the computer. It is enabling people to do things they could not do before, but it may take several more generations to affect the general population.”

What was the catalyst that started Kay thinking about these revolutionary computer tools? “I think part was being a grad student in the ARPA community, part a kind of laziness coupled with aesthetic,” he said. He’d been a graduate student only five or six days when he was given Ivan Sutherland’s thesis on the invention of computer graphics and simultaneously tasked to get a system going, which turned out to be the first Simula, on the university computer.

“Seeing them one after the other, I realized both of those two things shared something in common. They were both almost like biological cells and almost like little computers communicating,” said Kay.

“Because I didn’t have to go to class, I was completely relaxed. Often insight comes in such unguarded moments. I realized if I just changed these concepts a little, they would resemble something really powerful. When later asked what I was doing, I said ‘object-oriented programming.’ In retrospect I should have picked a much better term.”

Kay had two majors when the OOP concept appeared to him—biology and math—and that knowledge intermingled in his brain. He had seen a few programs that “were almost OOP,” he said.

“One reminded me of molecular biology. Each body has 100 trillion cells and they each have 60 billion components interacting informationally. It just clicked that if you could get computers to do what cells do, it would be a much better way of scaling things. It would vastly cut down the amount of effort and number of concepts you have to deal with separately in a computer. I really had a flash about it,” said Kay.

But it took nearly five years before he and his team could build an object-oriented program system to prove their ideas were as powerful as they thought they were. “When people saw the demos, they just couldn’t believe it,” he said.

This was just one part of the team’s innovations. Kay and the 25 team members were responsible for seven seminal technologies: the PC, bit-map screen, WYSIWYG GUI, Ethernet, OOP, part of the Internet, and laser printing. It was a complete vision of personal computing that reflects how people use PCs today.

Kay’s attentions also focus on music, specifically jazz and the baroque pipe organ. After many years of playing solely the pipe organ, Kay is returning to his first musical love. He was a professional jazz guitarist in his high school and college days, and he has picked up that guitar once again.

“I recently heard a group, the Phil Norman Tentet, that completely knocked me off my chair. They are so everything that I like about music. I just conceived this powerful urge to start playing guitar after more than 40 years of not playing guitar at all. Now I’m practicing a couple hours on guitar and one hour a day on the baroque pipe organ.”

It doesn’t take long when talking to Kay to realize that he has a vast knowledge of the world, which he attributes to being a truly avid reader. “I’ve probably read more than 10,000 books in my life. As a child, I read hundreds of books every year,” he explained.

“Dad was a physiologist, mom an artist and musician. I grew up in a houseful of books. I was interested in everything, especially how ‘the hip bone was connected to the thigh bone.’ I was actually more interested in science than engineering. The latter was kind of a hobby. It was fun to build things,” he said.

“Many people today don’t have a great interest in reading. Unfortunately, this is also true of my field of computing,” said Kay. “More progress could be made if details of other projects were studied.”

Many of the technical challenges facing those in the computer field today have already been solved, said Kay, but “people don’t know it because they don’t read. They are re-inventing the flat tire. It goes on all the time. Then there’s a bunch of problems that have to do with scale and expressability that have never been solved.”

Kay is now president of Viewpoints Research Institute, a nonprofit organization he created in 2001 to develop powerful ideas to improve worldwide student education, as well as to advance systems research and personal computing. It is an active leader in the One Laptop Per Child (OLCP) initiative striving to make $100 laptops for every child.

“Our Etoys educational authoring environment for children runs on 100 different platforms and uses 30 to 40 different language groups. The OLCP laptop can hold hundreds of books much more cheaply than paper and can withstand inclement climates much better, plus it can do new things only computers can do,” said Kay.

Viewpoints Research Institute has on a smaller scale the research process that was so successful in the large research groups of the 1950s and 1960s. Such research labs died when funding dried up. VPRI, said Kay, gives researchers a chance to try many ideas and have many failures to find the most fruitful new directions for qualitative advances. It could be just what’s needed for the development of totally new inventions that will move the worldwide economy forward.

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