Alan Kay Presentation at HP Tech Con (2003)

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ladies and gentlemen please welcome dick
Lampman senior vice president of research and directors of HP labs
earning I hope you all had a great day
yesterday for me it was pretty exciting to see the full power of HP's technology
team all in one place something we haven't been able to do for a long time
and as you heard yesterday something that we're gonna make a regular event so
it's great day so I have the pleasure today of introducing Alan Kay
you heard that very briefly yesterday but Alan's a difficult guy to introduce
to be honest he's certainly well known for his ideas on personal computing the
intimate laptop computer the now ubiquitous overlapping Windows interface
which I hope I don't see running out there right now and and of course modern object-oriented
programming as Shane master'd mentioned
yesterday he is one of the founders it was one of the founders of Xerox PARC earlier he was a member of the
University Utah ARPA team that developed the original 3d
computer graphics he has a very eclectic
background he was the chief scientist at Atari a fellow at Apple Computer
then a VP of R&D at Walt Disney Company and we're delighted now that he is a
senior fellow and a member of our technical staff at HP Labs at the same
time he's continuing as the president and co-founder of viewpoint viewpoints
Research Institute it is an institute that is dedicated to improving general
education and also understanding complex systems and especially using new
inventions in interactive constructive computing to do this Allen is and has
always been a disruptive thinker and today we asked him to talk about
creativity and the title of his talk is the difference in creativity between
children and adults and when I heard the title I thought to
myself I guess at the end of the talk I'll have to decide which group I'd rather be in so I'll leave that
challenge to you too anyway with that I am pleased to
introduce Alan Kay thank you thanks very
much first I'd like to say it's just an absolute pleasure and a privilege to be
part of hewlett-packard I've admired the
company over the years almost came here in the early 80s after Xerox PARC and
I'm really glad to be here now this
particular title and and talk came out of a couple of remarks I made it the HP
Berkeley citrus meeting where I was describing a one of those encounters
with children that gives you a sense of
the difference between the way adults and children look at the world and this
happened in in Toronto I thought I'd give you a little sense of what that was
was actually like so we're up in Toronto it's an eighth grade classroom wonderful
teacher and that day visiting was also a
group of fifth graders who have been
marked as learning disabled learning disabilities who had also been trying
the sweet stuff and so the question I
got asked by the by the eighth grade teacher was he said well we've been
exploring random notion of randomness
and stuff and one of the ways we did this was to make one of these little squeak cars kind of like this
so make a little little object here put
some tires on it
and when I get done I have a little thing that's both a graphics object and
something that's programmable so I can make it a little bit smaller here I can
call it a car I can look inside of it I
can drag out some stuff to make a little script here so if card forward by five car turn by
five and if I just say do that over and
over again I get a little circle these
things are sort of secretly logo turtles with costumes so I can put a pin down
see the circle drawn and then the
teacher said when we couldn't figure out how to do is although we could change
the color of the of the pan so for
instance we could click on this and we
can make the pen trails green here there
wasn't seem to be a way of selecting colors using random and he had this
notion and in fact it's true in the underlying language that one of the ways
of thinking about color is a kind of a vector space of primaries and you should
be able to assign random to each one of those and generate a lot of different
colors and we've forgotten to put that in the kids system so when they did the
the random stuff they did it like this they would get a random number tile and
so that's random 180 so it's turning all
over the place and this one I have learned that I'd better turn it off
before I toss in here so I'll change
this random 180 to random 80 and started
going again it it's what they wanted to do is to do this but to have different colors so I
said okay here's here's one way to do it you can make little get little ellipses
out and you can change their color and put them into a little holder and change
the color like this let me make this a
lighter gray here and we can put random
on the what the cursor does and then we can pick the colors out while I was
going through this a 10 year old from the learning-disabled class came up and
said oh I know a much better way to do this and he said look you can just pull
a copy of that palette right out of
there like this and you can start
stretching it in here so if I do
something like this he says I've got a
little thing of all the colors there and I can just copy this car here using the
green button and now I've got two cars and all I have to do is to take the
color that's under this car color under
this car and see if you move this car around that value changes and so if I
just drop this into the script here like this and I make them both go
and I looked at and I said holy shit
it's kind of a perfect illustration of the teacher only wanted to do it one way
and that way wasn't available so he couldn't do it so I reverted back to my
pre object data structure common-sense way and made a little data structure
that doesn't do the full job whereas the kid just took the system directly and
the irony of the thing to me was that I
had actually made everything in this system D constructible so the kid could
take it apart but I'd forgotten because this this color palette that I got from
here looked like a thing to me and I
forgot well of course it's it's just made out of parts here I can I can pull
out anything that I want but the kid just went took it as it came went with
what it could do and immediately saw that the problem was actually the same
in both things that this car was walking
randomly around all you needed to do is have a copy of that car walking handling
me around over here on top of the colors and you're done so that's the difference
between children and adults is that we tend to think in patterns even when we
were trying not to and the kids don't have that many patterns yet and so
they're much more able to deal with with the world that's put in front of them so
here's another example of a beautiful little solution completely solved by
children these two girls the class was given the the challenge to figure out a
robot car that could go down the center of the road and so they decided to make
a road that was blue and it had curbs that were yellow and green and after
much talking amongst themselves they decided it was actually a very simple
problem only make the car go forward when you see the middle of the road the
sensor on the car turn one way when you see a curb and
turn the other way so to them goes just three cases and if you notice the car
will actually stop and turn when it comes to a particularly sharp turn there
and when questioned the girl said and of course it will work even if we don't
draw the road very well because the plus four and the minus four cancel out so
that these things are just can run separately and this car will always stay
on the road and will stop as soon as it gets off the road like there there's
another example of the kinds of things that children can do and in fact in many
different ways six-year-olds have the most ability in
many many different areas sometimes even
in absolute terms here's a quick example of first graders with a teacher who not
only loved children but also was kind of an intuitive mathematician so this is
one of the few instances ever in the last 30 years of working with children
we're going to an elementary school and find a teacher who actually has a real
sense of mathematics this is about four months into their first grade she has
them take different shaped blocks and to
make entities of the same shape each
size larger so here's the one with Diamonds trapezoids are quite a
challenge so you have to turn them around and then what she did was to have
the children write down off separately
what it is they did by making a little construction project out of cardboard
and then writing down a table so this child Lauren said well the first one had
one block in it and then I have to add three more and it had four total blocks
and then I had to add five and it had nine total and I had to add seven so
they wrote these things down and they could see that this one differs just by
two here all the way along
and then they compared them and they discovered something really wonderful
and that is that every single growth rule was exactly the same and this is a
great crowd to show this example too because of surely you recognize the
second-order differential equation or if you're an old old computer jock like me
it's a two-stage digital differential analyzer this is the kind of thing that
Babbage made the difference engine to compute that computes all the squares of
the numbers driven by this constant difference of two here also a model of
acceleration and this is also an example
of the kind of things that children can generate and the way they form
abstractions which is not by bundling them up the way we do into a term but by
thinking of them as a bunch of cases that go together now what happens to us
as we get older as we start forming this goldfish bowl made out of an invisible
fluid that we can't see anymore so McLuhan statement I don't know who
discovered water but it wasn't a fish he really meant we were the fish and this
pink fluid in here is all the things
that we've internalized to the point that we can't remember that we did it
anymore and these are these invisible things are the things that rule our
lives much more than almost anything and kids learn this very early so up to
around the age of seven children are at
their best and after most imaginative with featureless blocks blocks that have
nothing on them and you could take a little square block oblong block and
suggest to the child boy this looks like a really wonderful truck and they'll
play with it as a truck and then you can say no it also looks kind of like like a
little baby and they'll look at it and
start cradling it because they're basically their powers of imagine
Asian are able to be projected on the world around them and then by around the
age of seven and actually it's going earlier people who've been studying this see a huge influence of television but
it's also partly biological to go away
from that kind of external imposition of
imagination which characterizes the young child to taking in images and
forms from the outside and conventional izing them till they start wanting much
much more detail in their toys in
various various ways and they give you
an example of how strong this is this is
a famous video done it NSF that went
went to a Harvard graduation right after the seniors toss their tassels and ask
them a couple of simple questions about the seasons and about the phases of the
Moon so you can see what the Harvard graduates think about this to test how a
lifetime of Education affects our understanding of science we ask these
recent graduates some simple questions in astronomy consider for example that
the causes of the seasons is a topic taught in every standard curriculum ok I think the seasons happens because as the
earth travels around the Sun it gets nearer to the Sun which produces warmer
weather and gets farther away which produces colder weather and then hence the seasons how hot it is or how cold it
is in any given time of the year has to do with the the closeness of the earth
to the Sun during the seasonal the earth goes around the Sun and and it
gets hotter when we get closer to the Sun and it gets colder when we get further away from the Sun these graduates like many of us think of the
Earth's orbit as a highly exaggerated ellipse even though the Earth's orbit is
very nearly circular with distance producing virtually no effect on the
seasons we carry with us the strong incorrect belief that changing distance
is responsible for the seasons I took physics and planetary motion and
relativity I've never really had a
scientific background whatsoever and I and I got through school without having
it I've gotten very far without having it I had quite a bit of science in high
school yeah through physics want first
year in two years of chemistry regardless of their science education 21
of the 23 randomly selected students faculty and alumni of Harvard University
revealed misconceptions when asked to explain either the seasons or the phases
of the Moon when it's further away from the Sun then it gets colder the earth
position interferes with the reflection of the Sun against the moon so I think
you can see that the main curriculum at Harvard is confidence 101
and if you if you know about what the
color of the Harvard ph.d robe is you can see whether this Harvard professor
got his ph.d so I kept on waiting on
this video for NSF to ask the most logical next questions but they never
did they had a different idea of what to do with the video so a couple of weeks
later I and was giving a class at talk
at UCLA and the audience were mostly
graduating seniors and I asked a bunch of them to come out on the law and after
the talk and went through exactly the same questions and I got roughly the
same result about 95% of these UCLA
graduate graduating seniors had serious misconceptions about one or both of
these ideas but then I got to ask the obvious next question so to the ones who
thought proximity of the earth to the Sun had something to do with the seasons
I said well tell me this when it's summer up here in the northern
hemisphere do you know what season it is in the southern hemisphere and every
single one of them did of course they didn't know why but what was interesting
that there was about a thirty after they had said well it's winter then there's a
30-second pause while I slowly realized that what they had just said
contradicted their proximity theory and it's very important to realize here
cognitively that those two ideas were
indexed by the same terms they both had seasons in them and yet what happened
was that the students could not retrieve anything that they knew as part of their
thinking process so they just fell back on their common sense and it's warmer
when you're nearer the stove and so forth and for the students who are like this guy who thought that the earth had
something to do with the phases of the Moon I asked them have you ever seen the
Sun and the moon in the sky at the same time and they all had and I said well is
the moon sometimes in phase and yeah it's
often in phase unless they're the opposite ends of the horizon the moon is
always in phase and then again a 30-second pause while I realize there is no pseudopod sticking out from the earth
you know they could see both of them up there so this is something they'd seen
dozens and dozens of times but it was again stored in another little
compartment that you could illicit it through questioning but it wasn't part
of their thinking process so this what we're seeing here is actually a normal
completely normal kind of behavior and it's funny because technical and
scientific people always laugh when they see the students doing that but what they don't realize is that they do it
themselves in a different area because this is one of the key notes the
keys to think thinking about human thinking Mircea Eliade is basically a
mat an anthropologist who's interested in belief systems it's written many
interesting books as a particularly interesting anecdote in this book called
the myth of the eternal return and this
was in the 30s he and a bunch of other anthropologists were going through
Eastern Europe writing down and recording folk songs and stories and so
forth and they came to a village that had a particularly beautiful song about
a young bride and a handsome groom who are on their way to their wedding and
the fairies swooped down jealously and took the groom away and the wedding
never happened and it was such a beautiful song that they questioned the
villagers more about it and they said well how long ago did it happen Oh a
long time ago well how long it going they said Oh about 50 years ago and they
questioned them more and discovered that the bride-to-be was still living so they
went to talk to her she said no no that song we were walking along the side of a
hill and he tripped on a root fell down the hill and broke his neck
and you know it was very sad but that's what happened so they went back to the
villagers and said well she said he tripped on a root and they said no no
the fairies came down and so basically
almost everything we know and think
about even when we're trying to do better are in the form of stories the
stories are usually better than what happened in the sense of their tidiness
the stories are hermetic so if you see a movie that you like last week that's
very very different and even contradictory to the movie you saw today
and liked there's no feeling of dissonance at all because it's the
purpose of these stories to be compartmentalized and hole in themselves
and so we have this compartmentalization system that is also very very case based
so nothing resembling what we would call
modern thinking is actually built into our nervous systems so one way of
thinking about this stuff is if we take
the pink stuff in the goldfish bowl and flatten it out we have Arthur kessler's
model of thinking which is kind of an ant crawling along a plane and again
it's blissfully unaware that the plane is pink and the ant can have the
illusion of progress so I can point
itself at a goal and try to get to it and it can problem solve and get around
the goal but everything that's doing is is actually pink but if you ant like us
maybe taking a shower out for a run getting up in the morning a little
unguarded thing a little blue thought might poke up but
we've spent years with our parents
school our culture going to church of
various kinds learning the pink and it's
good reason for it this is one of these cases where the first order theory is a
good one and it's opposite from the second order theory which is also a good one
first order theory is if you're a subsistence Society don't try to make
too many experiments you can't afford to lose and so our basic approach to things
is to be relatively conservative and to improve slowly on the fringes but every
once in a while in spite of all of this you get a full-fledged blue idea it's an
outlaw idea it's outside the confines of common sense and so how many people here
have had one of those ideas betcha everybody has had a weird idea now the
problem with these weird ideas like all ideas is almost all of them are mediocre
down to bad even the blue ones now often
when people had a blue idea in the past they'd go out and start a religion
because if you've had one of these blue ideas you know it seems to come from the
heavens you weren't really thinking about this and all of a sudden you have
this weird thought so one of the most important things that Benny Landa
pointed out yesterday is you have to be very careful with these blue ideas
because they seem to be manifestly true and you have to make sure that the blue
ideas above some special kind of threshold before because it's going to
take a lot of work to first work it out it's going to take a lot more work to
convince anybody that's a reasonable idea and this is because for the really
unusual ideas it takes almost as much creative effort to understand and learn
as it did to originally invent it and this is what what is tough because when
we have one of these ideas we work it out and it works out beautifully at some
point we forget what happened before we
have that idea what we were like because we're now a new kind of person because of this idea and we cannot believe that
other people can't understand it because it's so manifestly true and here's the
demo so how do we get in the way of this
as I talked about two things already
case based reasoning and compartmentalization and the third one
which is very related to this is called instrumental reasoning built into all
human nervous systems is the tendency to get really interested in our current
goals and to judge new ideas and new
tools solely by their ability to deal with our current goals so there's a few
percentage of people who are much better at transforming themselves in the
presence of a new idea in the presence of a new tool they change themselves
they don't try and change the idea and the tool into them but this is very rare
and so one way of thinking about this is that instrumental reasoning prevents
this little blue hop over the fence of your goal structure even to a new pink
idea something that's part of the conventional way of doing things but we
can't get to it because we're focused on this and this accounts in many many
parts for why the last the commercialization of the PC has been so
boring exceptions are interesting but
generally speaking most business people are very goal-oriented they're very
instrumental they look at new ideas and
new technology as and judge it as to whether it is
similar to what they're doing but a little bit better and the people who
have had a exquisite rhythm we're just staying a couple of epsilon ahead of the
slow pace of business learning have been tremendously successful people like
Engelbart who actually understood in one fell swoop in the 60s one large part of
what computers were really good for and how they should be used by people who
are working have not to this day been understood or adopted so that's a little
discouraging and in fact there's a few more discouraging things to add here
another one that we will recognize in our own technical lives as well as
elsewhere as when the sub goals become the goals so you usually start off doing
something that has a grand purpose and after two or three years of solving sub
goals you can't remember what the grand purpose is anymore so originally trains
railroads were set up to deal with Trant
transportation but by the 30s the railroad companies only invested in
improving railroads and they completely missed the idea of the other dimension
this is code of a perfect analog to the pink plane blue plane and what's even
better is many many years after this was almost a fait accompli
Fred Smith's professors that I believe
Harvard gave him a D or an F on his
essay explaining why a company like FedEx would be a really great idea
fortunately he didn't listen to them and was able to work out why this is a
really much better way of doing many many forms of Transportation so we see
this happening to us all the time in our technical field we start doing some
grand thing and then three years later we're still working on the compiler
we've all done it another really
important invisible thing that we completely ignore is the importance of
the ambient environment so here's a
somewhat recognizable work area and
cubicles do have their place it's a
certain form of efficiency here but Mike
when I was trying to figure out what's what should I put in here I was thinking
about well gee uh an alfresco bistro in
Paris the outdoors if you buy a cup of
coffee they'll let you stay there all day perfect place to get stuff done but
I thought that this garden and lily pond
that Monet built himself at Giovanni would be a pretty good thing we just
don't think and that this thing does not cost a lot of money it's basically water
and plants set up in a way that reminded
him everyday of the difference between art and problem-solving art includes
problem solving the problem solving very often doesn't include art there's the
famous error thirty-three from Xerox PARC that like catch-22 area 33 is
putting somebody else's project in your critical path could even be your friends
many acrimonious things have happened from that often it's a vendor you decide
well I'm going to do X Y & Z but I need son to cooperate or Microsoft to
cooperate you could be in deep stew so
generally speaking if you can roll your own this is the second order thing if you can roll your own tools and get away
with it you're much much better off because then you have control of your own destiny
then finally the last way of avoiding this is just
being a reasonable adult responsible
immune to frivolous side paths non
distractible and so forth now of course we can reverse all of
those here's an interesting sort of last
idea here is that people who have gotten
through this and for one reason or another if they're a paradigm shifter
type thinkers they tended to do their work before they were thirty quick was a
little bit older than that Watson was quite a bit younger than that
Newton was about twenty-six and so was Einstein in our field John McCarthy did
his paradigm shift when he was quite young and but if you're a systems person this is a really comforting thought for
those of us who have gray and are here often your best work is done later and
this is because systems have so many
things that you have to learn about and think about and have experience with so
Monet himself did some of his best work when he was in his late 70s and 80s and
so did Bach in his late in his late 50s
and early 60s Bertrand Russell and our
field our newest HP fellow David Reed who's one of the to his repast systems
people I know is in his 50s now and I think thinking about systems in a deeper
way than ever and he's been great since he was a in graduate school now what can
we do it was it get older to deal with
this and I think that there are many things that are possible the simplest
and last idea I leave with you is that
thinking of design as the center of what you're doing rather than science
technology engineering or math I think is a better metaphor because design
involves people it involves aesthetics
it's possible to get even adults really
in touch with their six-year-old by getting them to work on a very tough
design project that's out of their field and one that is serious to them this one
is a city design project and we found that this works extremely well for
children as they start building their pink goldfish bowl and for adults who
have already built their pink goldfish bowl is to get them design a large
complex system that people have to live in so the the difference between
children and adults is the children are
more open but have less knowledge to work with adults have more knowledge to
work with but it's our double-edged sword the more knowledge we have the more of a tendency we have to use it so
what I try to do and not always successfully as you can tell from the
story is try and learn as much as possible and then try to forget it and
only be able to smell the perfume of that knowledge so if you can
successfully forget what you know except for the perfume then you have a chance
of doing a little bit more of what a six-year-old does so easily
thank you [Applause]
nobody told me what I should do next but I think getting off the stage is a good idea