An interview with Alan Kay for at XT 20 Conference

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something you mentioned there was that the
park of the methodologies behind
Park came out of or was a descendant of the
methodologies around radar yeah the
in a radar happened because of
a developing very very critical situation where
the the
chips are down the evening that this is in
in the 1939 when no better
than how it worked at all okay now what
actually happened was that in 1933
when the UK
was very
isolationist and worse and
that was the baldwin
government but followed by the chamberlain government
so they were not interested
in doing anything it was actually a scientist Henry Tizard
who was alarmed by Hitler coming
to power in 1933 and on his
own hook started he
a physicist and he started talking to other physicists
and people in electronics first asking
for a death ray like in War
of the Worlds and they calculated
that would take too much power death ray
meaning could you boil some something organic
in a plane at a distance and
the answer is no there's too much power but on the other hand there
have been things in the 20s and we
are certain even
though the return is so faint that we should be able to bounce
microwaves off objects
and be able to detect how far away
they are and so forth and that's how it started it was
done completely on the hook had
nothing to do with politicians or anything
because they had a party line and everything but the
ahead because that's the job of science is
to look ahead and to take a deal with the Invisibles
and so
a remarkable series of events happen besides the
inventions that they did they
were able to convince below
the top levels of the government to start funding this thing
that became known as the chain home system which
is a ring of radar stations going
all the way from the north of Scotland all
the way down through the South of England I
think there may be as many as 180
or 190 of these and
so by the time the
Germans decided to try and fly over the channel
this system that had been done long
before anybody in power wanted it
was operational and detected
the planes and the RAF
Spitfires and hurricanes were scrambled and
a few days
later the Battle of Britain have been won
by the UK not by the Germans and of
course the big deal about radar was not even
you know the Germans shifted tonight flying and
the famous taffy Bo and
invented airborne radar
and so night fighters were
invented to deal with the night bombers and so forth but the
big deal about radar was that it was the
dominant technology that won World War two for the Allies
not just for planes but primarily
for submarines and the
goal of radar the radar research
all of this was going on was to be able to detect even
periscopes sticking up
and so it's a great story and
the one
of the key issues on it was
the British government once they had it wanted to negotiate
with the Americans who had the
manufacturing capacity where this stuff
and hairy-chested said no no let us not do that let us just give everything
we know including the atomic secrets we
have let's just give everything to the Americans and let's rely on their
goodwill and so that is what has
happened there was a famous plane flight with a famous briefcase
that had the most important technological
invention of World War two the cavity magnetron
which allowed practical high-power
small wavelength
radar to be done that was carried in
this briefcase it was just given to the Americans
and within a week Bell Labs had made
fifteen of them and
some of the Brits like taffy Bowen stayed
in the United States to set up to the grad lab at
MIT and the
rad lab at MIT did designed more
than 180 different radar
systems this is in three and a half years of of
the war and these were all manufactured
by the companies around Boston through
128 companies and distributed by the hundreds
of thousands all over the world
as small as fighter planes as large as coastal
installations and everything in between all done
by a group of about three or four thousand people
in building 20 at MIT in
three and a half years so this is one of the great stories
of all times and of
the people who worked in the rad lab nine of them became
Nobel Prize winners later and
none of them enduring the work at the rad
lab we're working on the stuff that earned them the Nobel Prize they
were they put aside their physics hats to
do physical engineering on
behalf of this much larger cause this
is a great story and it's something
that everybody in government should
not only know
about it but have their nose rubbed in it and the
other part of it is to take a look at
the the
aftermath which
of a terrible war but
the aftermath of that war was that industrial
capacity and industrial wave
methodology the
level of inventions and every other kind of thing
had been boosted in a way that was
not happening incrementally and so
after World War two there was an
essentially a whole new engineering and a holding an industrial
revolution based on everything
was learned there and by the
way it was happening over here except
he combination of the government the bankers and
the academics could not cooperate
so this
country was leading in computing all the way
up to the early 60s both
in hardware and software was ahead
of the Americans by perhaps five years or
so and all of that got blown by
the different
priorities and different levels of understanding that existed
here and we were the benefit of it because I went to half
literally half the graduate students I went to
grad school within the 60s were from the UK
and from France which had had its own way of self-destruction
and so we got this
fabulous group of talented
PhD students who came over to the US because
ARPA was funding a
lot of important stuff and in
a way it never came back over here except as
goods to be sold
so I'd like to just ask
a question on the subject of cooperation
between let's call it politicians
community I mean if somebody's I've lived
in the UK most of my life and my
impression is that there has been quite a lot of
distrust between politicians and scientists here even
a kind of that politicians would hold
even the language that's used to describe
scientists as boffins and techie
artists exactly the problem is that
the you
know it's in a way it's worse here
we have our own problem with basically in
the US and here pretty much the
only elites that are allowed and admired
by a wide part of society are
sports heroes right
place where people can be better than ordinary and
people are happy about it but
over here we have the
two cultures and he was not talking about
working class culture at all he was talking about the
latter's culture and the science culture
in the high level universities here ya know and
that is a huge problem because
of sinking stone pointed out it
is far more likely for a scientist
to know quite a bit about Shakespeare he and it
is for Shakespeare specialists know anything of all about
silence yes and then it said certainly in
Europe politicians or certainly in the
UK politicians have generally been drawn from the
Arts side rather the science side so
the huge exception of course
recently was Andrea
Merkel who
has a PhD in physics and is
few heads of state who can actually understand the
dynamics of a contagion
like kovat 19
and she laid it into Germany
a couple of days ago of pointing out that
it could very well be 50 to 70 percent
infected which is actually
what the epidemiologists in the United States
think and this is incredibly
inconvenient for people
trying to make money and people trying to do that and
like Al Gore said
in his book an inconvenient truth about the climate problem
people who don't have the imagination understand
the consequences try to sweep it under the
rug like president Trempealeau poses
will go away he claims it will
go away but it's not going to go away so what's what's
in this paper I wrote for the Ellen
MacArthur Foundation one of the main
points was the only time when
regular people are willing to call on the
boffins and is when they're deathly afraid of
something and
often the boffins have been working away anyway
because part of the deal of being
of Zionists of looking ahead so they
are often already working on it but yeah so
you had in the 30s the
enough people got worried
about what was happening in Germany to get
the radar stuff going and to get
a Bletchley Park
going in the u.s. it's not
wasn't any better except Roosevelt president Roosevelt
was for
helping the the
UK but Congress wasn't Congress
was not interested in doing
anything that wasn't an investment
in a possibility of a war so
it happened in the u.s. maybe in typical US
fashion that a very smart guy who
had made the equivalent of billions today
understanding how the Depression was going to go
he converted everything into gold right
before the depression happened and then bought
at the bottom and
so but as a recovery happened he got richer
and richer he happened to be an excellent amateur
scientist to the point that he was eventually elected to
the National Academy of Sciences and on with
is own money he set up a huge insulation called Tuxedo
Park so this is the American
side also going on in the 30s he invented many
of the navigational aids that
are still in use today make more money
on those but he was especially interested in radar
and so when this thing started
happening the government was still allow yeah
eventually get around to funding something at MIT
and this guy Alfred Loomis said well the heck with
that I'll just fund it but he just stepped in
and funded the whole start of everything and
was great for any it was anyway
another part of this really interesting radar
story pretty much nobody whose
job it was to to do
something reasonable did their job
reasonably was done by
people who weren't in a better
imagine what was going to have and
some of them had means to start making things
happen so so the ARPA Park thing
Xerox was
one of the ARPA projects it
was just that by the time Matt was set up
for another set of reasons the
DoD had been shut down from doing
kind of research funding that they were doing and ARPA
got changed to DARPA the Charter
got changed the kind of projects they could fund got changed
and so finding Xerox
as a funder was the goal of one
of the original orbit Arbor funders who was afraid that the work
wasn't going to get done and it needed about half
of it had been done at eight years of it have been done and he
thought another five to six years
could finish off the whole deal that
turned out to be the case and a lot of that remaining
five years was funded by Xerox you
were about
in your in your preprint
about the imagination required that
imagination of catastrophe and one of the problems with
climate changes the human blindness to actually seeing and
imagining was that know it
so again the climate thing
no we again there's a sallied
ISM thing but what most most people
don't get about science it is actually qualitatively different than
normal human reasoning and normal
human ways of looking at the world is qualitatively different
it's not like a better version of what
Kay people used to do yeah it's a whole new
deal but it almost anybody can learn how to do
it the problem is most people don't learn how to do
it and the educational institutions
have not taken it seriously as
something that young children should learn how to do it's
an epistemological thing it's a world view kind of
thing so it is most easily learned
by most people when they're children if you
don't learn them when you're a child you are faced with something
much more difficult than learning a foreign language when
you're older but what the way the
true about climate is this that
Caltech scientists
in the early late 50s invented
the apparatus needed to really
accurately measure the co2 in the atmosphere
that was started in 57
by 1962
enough careful measurements
have been taken to show that not only was it increasing
but it was increasing exponentially the National Science
Foundation of the u.s. issued a
warning saying we are
going to be in complete trouble in about 50
years if this isn't taken
care of immediately so
the way I counted that was like 57
or 58 years ago and
no sciences job
is to make the Invisibles more visible
people we are all going scientists
are blind but we can make instruments and we
can make measurement ways of
modeling things that extend what
we can't do without them that's the
whole point here so the things they're starting to talk
now like carbon tax well it's way too late what
people don't realize is respect to the climate we are right
in the middle of a war we have been
invaded it's not a question of the enemy
being over here or being small it's
invisible to most people they can't see it and
nobody is taking it seriously yet
same thing and you probably
are aware that among various degrees I
picked up in my misspent youth besides one
in in math and the computing ones there's one
in molecular biology so if we switch over
to biology
every and I think every every
scientist in the physical sciences and certainly
the biologists have been warning for
decades about
certainties of Panda
make deadly pandemics
there is nothing new here there's nothing surprising
about coronavirus in any way to
any scientist nothing it's
just the details but
that it's even a respiratory disease
is not surprising because we've had SARS and
MERS already we were lucky
with SARS because even though it was really deadly
and MERS also they're
not very contagious so
but the whole point of
doing this stuff ahead of time is to get is
to take the imagination that science
is able to do pretty darn accurately for instance with
regard to the climate there was just a recent
study that looked at the 30 main supercomputer
simulations starting back
right before the 70s so
a supercomputer back then was about
200,000 times less capable
in an iPhone 6 but
supercomputers compared to the other computers but every
single one of the climate simulations starting
back then run and
looking at what they predicted back then to what has happened
today the worst one was only off by a couple of couple
of percent the
ones we can do today are much more
accurate and much more detailed but
there's never been a time
once the detection
of the greenhouse gas increases that
scientists haven't been able to imagine this
disaster never so
you could imagine you know I'm sounding frustrated
right but yeah the inmates are running the
asylum here and they're going
to suffer that that faith I think there's a good
chance that major parts of
the ecosystems on the planet are going to be toppled
and one of the one
of the things I do in Cox often is I bring in a coke
bottle and set
up the normal way I pointed well you can poke at it a little bit
and it'll come back but if you turn the coke bottle
and stand it up on its neck just a little
poke will topple it over and now imagine the difference
in the amount of work that has to be done between what
it took the top lit and to put it right-side up and
what if the toppling rolls it off the table now think
of how much work has to be done so these are the
kinds of things and the same thing is true with covin
the big problem with these viruses
is what most people can't see
so they are reacting to the tip of an iceberg
the scientists were reacting to the fact that
there were going to be icebergs so these
are these warnings 20 years ago people are reacting
to the tip of the iceberg but science knows
estimate the mass of the part of the iceberg you can't see
and similarly there are models that can take what
you can see and find
good estimates of what's actually going on which
is usually about a factor of 15 or 20 more
infections than have actually been shown up
both the US and the UK have
essentially been I would
call it scandalous at not testing
like in the whole US there have only
been five thousand tests administered so far and
maybe proportionately only that in the UK
I don't know I haven't been tracking it every day but this
is like crazy because how else are they going to be able to
estimate what kinds of emergency
measures have to happen the other thing in the UK
is that UK for instance
compared to the US the UK has 1/7
the available hospital beds per capita
1/7 and I
believe the UK is almost the worst country
in Europe as far as hospital beds
available per capita
don't we go to Washington the state of Washington
they're taking care of people out in the hallways
because they got swamped anyway
so the Chinese got started a
little bit slow but then they they have man to
shut the thing down now it
may not happen here reason there's a thing
called the pandemic is because
other countries didn't act as
soon as the chosen up in China anybody
with half a brain would shut
everything down because of course
it's going to spread and especially if it's viable
for days on surfaces like the
corona virus is that means
you don't have to be sneezed on to get
it means people can carry it around for days and their hands and transfer
it and so that's that's
the recipe and there are plenty of models that will tell you exactly
what's going to happen and those models are being
right but you know it's a Pyrrhic victory isn't it
yeah of course the models are right so
so these things are very frustrating
to scientists and they awry
they are one of the causes
of the friction between scientists and politicians
because they in general
you know except for somebody like Al Gore
who was a perfect guy
he was really interested in the stuff he did his homework
he liked scientists he
interested in what science was saying about the climate he was concerned
so he was a big exception
to that but you know most politicians find
you know treat scientists
as Cassandra was treated and
you would think that the letters people over
here would actually know that story wouldn't you
mean it's the it's in
the Iliad right there Cassandra was telling
them what was going to happen and they didn't like what she was saying
so they just ignored her even warned them
about the Trojan horse so so
that is one of those stories from antiquity that shows where
roughly the same species we always work which
is that we project our own beliefs onto the world rather
trying to find out what the world actually is so
this is a huge problem and of course business is
main problem is its goals are too small
like living in the twentieth century and if
your goal is just to make money you're
in real trouble and you're likely to mess
things up for other people as well that's
way off being
century like in American businesses
basically like hunters and gatherers a hundred thousand
years ago there's a lush Valley
we have instincts to go exploit
the things in the lush Valley and when we deplete the value
there's another Valley the valleys right now we're
created by all of these scientists that nobody wants to fund anymore
and the
businesses don't even think about where this stuff comes
from they're just trying to make money off it and
none of the billionaire's I know
happen putting
out big funding even in their own companies
for the kinds of research that
gave them the technologies in
place so I find that the
level of blindness and blindness
has a kind of arrogance that goes along with it
because it's a kind of a blundering
arrogance oh yeah
so you
know if you turn it around look at the plus side
of the thing the people
who did these eight and a half inventions just at
counting the one the other ones that are padded
the most
of those eight and a half inventions were done by
a grand total of 25 PhDs or PhD
equivalents was cheap cost
hardly anything well
I did a calculation
recently of
let's see what it wasn't it was
to you know tend to allocate maybe 5
to 10% for Rd 10% of their
revenue and so
if you take that and
investments theory says you should invest a small amount
of what you're investing in high-risk
high-return things so that's kind
of the kind of research that we did so
let's say one to five percent of the
five to ten percent and
so I took those figures
for what would it take to do a Xerox PARC and
I took the low ones I took five percent for
Rd and 1% of that for Mad Money and
that level and
multiplied back out gave the
top 63 fortune 500 companies
so they could afford it in a shot and if
you took the larger percentages of investment
it went to the top 600
fortune 500 companies so we're
talking about Stanford as far as government's go we're talking about nothing
here you're talking about fingernail clippings
money that is wasted so
the coming up with the money is really
easy why don't people want to spend it and the answer
is because they're more
than always more than one reason one good one is
people who are responsible for this money feel
like they should have some control of the process
right because we're used to top-down processes
about it people who spent their lives making money
or winding up controlling money have not spent their
lives doing science so they are
the last people who should ever be put in charge of deciding
goals and there
is a famous effort
over here to match up to our club before and to
the Japanese fifth generation in the 80s called Alvey
you guys are all too young to remember that but
you can read the documents of what happened
in the end they could not bring themselves to
fund fund the way ARPA funded
instead they democratized it
and spread it around and that is not
the way you get David Beckham
on was it Manchester United
now if you want to put together a championship
team don't spread the money around
at the same time Europe
did a
similar effort called Alvie
that was called a spree Alvie
over here is pretty over-the-air both of these were
complete busts and the current EU
version which is
money monetarily wise is
it was a really good idea which is they have have had matching
funds for R&D for companies
in Europe for years almost nothing has
come of these things because the EU
has retained the prerogative
of deciding what the projects are and the
important thing there is in this far out research
is problem finding and part
of the funding Arco spent probably 40% of its entire
budget funding problem finding
for which there is no result at all
except people would occasionally say
oh now I know what I want to work on right
and that doesn't trickle out except in
wartime or a cold war time to something that
especially the public they don't understand any
of this stuff right what they understand
is somebody being given a task and their job is to do that this
the way it works so we're talking about this crazy thing
where there's almost infinities of money available
ironically a lot
of it from these inventions that we did in the 60s and 70s but
nobody will put it back out
because they don't want to move from hunting and gathering to even
in bending agriculture in agriculture
has this idea that you have to renew the land
because you're more or less permanently settled
right and even the Bible
loud has a famous
thing in there where you should leave your fields fallow one
year and seven so they can recover so
14 percent and that's a very good R&D budget
it's that 14% you're not
using for day-to-day stuff
that is going to allow you to be around and prosper
a hundred years from now yes today
about are you positive about the future Allen
I mean one thing I looked up with the current
situation it was there that there
was one little thing that was heard on the news that the politicians
were saying we're doing everything the scientists are
telling us to do which was remarkable
you've never heard yeah yes that's
a just at least on the US that's completely wrong
yeah yeah well they're not doing
they may be saying that but yeah
yeah you again but there was an it was
an interesting thing to hear nonetheless
and I was wondering whether because there's not an election
coming up in the UK and this thing is developing so quick
so that there isn't that that kind of concern for politicians
about losing their seats or doing something that is
politically unpalatable whether that was or all maybe
weather coded itself would would be a
demonstration of a meeting if it's
successfully contained which is probably not gonna
happen now but the showcase of what happens when you do listen
scientists I mean I'm trying to search for very few
positives in a sea of negatives yeah
but nobody who
you know nobody who's a research
scientist is other than
an optimist you know
we like to work on hard problems and
we don't expect to
working on the fringe I forget what
what's a good batting average in cricket
it's like
50 similar
to baseball I think so
what that means is 65% of the the
time something not
desired happens so it looks
like terrible failure but in baseball certainly
and I'm sure in cricket that
is considered to be overhead for trying
to do something really difficult though
an error in baseball is not catching a fly ball that's
technique you should be able to you
know in baseball you're supposed to catch 98 or 99 percent of
the time successfully because it's mirror
technique it's something you can get good at but
nobody can get good at being
so SEC's successful create creatively
the good thing is much less probable
than the millions of bad things right
it's a special or it's like life compared to
all of the organizations of exactly the same chemicals
that are not alive there are trillions and trillions of
ways of not having in a live thing from exactly
the same chemicals in exactly the same proportions
so so the way this thing
works is yeah people are very optimistic about
their process
what they usually measure themselves on is
not percentage of results
so if you get 0 you
need to think about a different field but
what they measure themselves is on the quality of the effort and
the way the thing works out with the amount
of method that's available now a
very high quality of effort by high quality people
is going to generate trillions
of dollars or pounds of
additional wealth and can
also deal with some of the problems created
by people who lack imagination and have
been polluting the planet for
the last 150 years or so yeah
so you know if you ask me whether I'm optimistic
about the human race
I never have been but
I've spent most of my life trying to move
education into a place where it can do much more with
children than the imaginations of most parents
and governments children can do
a lot more along these lines than
parents and governments and/or their teachers really
want them to because all of these things are different
from what the parents teachers and governments
are comfortable with so they're
these comfort zone issues and these issues of convenience
and inconvenience are the ones that
wind up taking small problems
into enormous problems maybe intractable problems
and that is a that is one of the
many tragedies that is inherent to our species
it's like irony you know Americans
don't really get irony but
my father was an Australian and he loved British
culture so I was schooled in irony early on but
the thing he pointed out to me about irony
he is a little bit of it as humorous
but deep ironies are usually tragic
right and so
one of the ones were just seeing
now is for instance Biogen
which is a company in Cambridge Mass of
full of biologists
physicians they do neuro physiological
stuff but still they know all of this
stuff nevertheless they decided to have their
yearly conference they
are in-game 'bridge massed and they were
the center of the outbreak in Boston right now
you know and another one
of these tragic ironies is you may not be aware of
it but somewhere between 200,000
and 300,000 people each year in the
u.s. die is the result of diseases
transmitted by physicians
not being careful about sepsis
probably over here too
but they have the gloves on
they say oh I we don't I don't worry
getting infected but what they're doing is carrying
stuff on their gloves all over the place and
like I say as many people now in the US
has died from smoking died because the physicians
in the hospitals have infected them so
this is irony but it's it's the tragedy
of the human race that
we can't educate
the children to
more aware of these things that are invisible
and to be able to think
about them without being fearful so
it's just like teaching a child about a big dog
teaching a child about automobiles in the
street you want to be afraid of an automobile
but you don't want to think you're
impervious right so that this kind of elementary
training of what you might call epistemological perspectives
that are demanded in the 21st century is
not being done
so all of the worries are about vocational
things in the US and
maybe over here also and that's completely missing the point because
the learning to program a computer
is not going to invent you the Internet
not even close the internet
was invented as part of a large project to
help people learn to think better
and to cooperate better
as part of his lofty goal it was humanistic
that was such a grand vision
that people who are scientists and technologists
just loved the idea of working on this
thing and we were able to pull it off after about 14 years of