An Interview with Computing Pioneer Alan Kay

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okay mister okay your
Paderborn  right now we
see a quote at a at a  building as a great
honor to you it was  great surprise
when they told me they  were doing it the
quote has been  everywhere on the internet
it will  probably go on my tombstone people
like  the optimism in the
quote and of course  there are other quotes that are less  optimistic
that I've made and those have  not gone on any building that I
know of  the research community I
was a part of  was much
more concerned with making  progress than anything and
so the  important part about the
quote is not  who said it but
who reads it okay and
so  from the standpoint I
would be just as  happy if my name weren't on the
quote  because that's irrelevant
  okay there's no information content in  Alan Kay
but there is a little bit of  information content
in the idea that the  future is in our hands
do something about it  so from
the way I am my research  community from
40 years ago looked at  things that was what
was more important  so I might even have picked a different
  quote which one well
one of the ones I  came up with is the idea that context
or  point of view is worth ad IQ
points and  so
you know we're if we're
born in  10,000 BC with
the IQ of Leonardo not
a  lot is going to happen because it's
a question of being smart we aren't a  very smart species
we can accumulate  knowledge and that helps
but most  traditional societies have accumulated
lot of knowledge and things that have  made the big changes
are changes in our  context like
the invention of reading  and writing the
invention of modern  science 400 years ago those
completely  changed the way we look at the world
  and to me it's the business
of a  university to supply
to help students
  learn contexts that they're
never aware  of when they're in high school and
so I  think I might put that on a university  building
first because
the you think  about preventing the future
it doesn't  even say it doesn't say
whether the  inventions are plus or minus right
so  it's a very aggressive statement if you
  think about it and people like
it  because it's optimistic and it doesn't  have any
moral consequences the way it's  way it's actually stated
but to me  invention does have moral consequences
and so you have to think about something  else also in 2004
you've got the Turing  award for your life
the you know I got a bunch
of awards  over over the years and
most of us in
  that research community I came from and
  who got awards think that the
the big  the big award was the fact that we got  to do
the work so that was
because  making something out of nothing  is
a process of art and that
is a huge  reward to
be able to do that and then  almost
as equal in the amount of award  is
the fact that people were willing to  fund us before we done
the work so if  you think about getting a medal
40 years  later for something that was is
now  completely obvious was a good idea
it's  small compared to somebody
being willing  to fund you before
the idea is a good idea and especially  if you happen
to be in your 20s like I  was so the
the awards are
we think are  more to
recognize the field because  nobody remembers
who last year's Nobel  Prize winner in physics was
but we  remember the public remembers
there is a  thing called physics because there is a  Nobel
Prize and somebody  wins it each year and that's the
feel about awards like the Turing award  and the Draper prize and
and the Kyoto  prize and so forth that
there are really  recognitions of the field for
the public  and we show up to them when we get these  awards to
help the public understand  there
that there are these processes  going on that
are not completely in the  public eye
yeah so so the the
we gotta
say the real recognition usually comes  much earlier than getting
a major award  of
the stuff that counts okay
our global economic economy
is  increasingly growing and
the  characteristics are mainly
or the the  main point
the development of the IT
you  talk about a revolution
at which
a state  of this well
I think that you
know  economics ultimately depends on our
  ability to convert things
in nature to  energy which we can
then use to make  things and so
you know
over the over the  years we've used water flow
we've used  heat we've used petroleum and so
forth  and information
has a content
that can  be transformed from from
one way to  another and so
the ability of people to  cooperate
has done more for civilization  than
almost any other thing even though  it's
in our genes to  to compete
but in fact the civilizations
that are the most wealthy are the ones  that have
learned how to cooperate  because that gives
you the most  potential wealth
to be able to make  things out of so
that's something that  the general human race hasn't really
  understood yet and many people in  business
don't understand it because  businesses are always competing they
  haven't invented agriculture yet
in the  sense of thinking of a stable large
very  powerful
very abundant system of
things  and in the
realm of computing what
has  happened now is to
to be able to do what  always happens when something new
comes  along like when the Gutenberg Bible was
  shown at the Nuremberg fair
in 1454
it  was shown as a way
of making things that  looked exactly like what the monks
did  including the illuminations so
though it's cheaper to print they got  people in to
make the drawings in there  by hand because that's what books look  like
the books were big like this so you  couldn't they
weren't really portable  because books beforehand
we're so  expensive that they're too
expensive to  move around and there
are people in the  first few years after
understood what the book the printing  press was actually
about but Europe  didn't understand
it for 150 years so it  was until
the 17th century that what the  printing press was all about
starting to  get used and so
that lag is what we're  in right now and
it's interesting that  commercial computing
started about 500
years after the printing presses started  in the early 50s printing
presses 1454  and
so in this for in this first 50  years if
you look at what most people  use their computers for it's
almost  entirely automating old media
  right so it's textual
media pictures  movies accounting
automating  warehouses full of records
and except  for science almost
uses computers for what they're actually  good for
they're using them for the  secondary thing the ability
of the  computer to imitate old media just
he printing press could imitate what  the monks did but
so the real revolution  and the
revolution and that happened  with the printing press changes the way  Europe
thought and not just  scientifically it changed
how Europe  thought about itself from the standpoint
  of nationalism wasn't until books
tarted being printed in the vernacular  for each country people
started so  governance changed
there there wasn't  anything like a democratic
republic in  Europe until after
the printing press  because they have to be argued into
  effect so the real revolution of the
printing press happened in the 17th  century and when
we when we invented the  personal computer in the internet
in the  70s we realized it was
going to take a  while for the uptake
and it could take a  hundred years and
the reason is is that  the
commercial reason
is that the  commercial consumer economy
is not  interested in having the buyers
of  technology learn anything and so
they  are selling things that are explicitly
  aimed at imitating old media and don't
give you access to the new media so for  instance the iPad
is a wonderful piece  of technology but it's
not really set up  for anybody to write a program on  whether
you're a child or an adult or a  scientist or anybody
else so it's in  exactly an imitator
for for old media  and it's been very successful
because  the general public doesn't have to learn  how
to use it ok so so
that is not a  revolution that is simply
automating  something that's familiar and making
  money by selling sir
convenient services so the real  revolution happens
when  we'll start thinking differently
you know nobody does what I do  who isn't optimistic
so because  otherwise
the you know working on really  hard
problems the you it
helps being  optimistic even if
you don't have a good  reason for it because
an optimist will  try more things and
if the optimist  doesn't worry about failing the optimist
  has a much better chance even in a tough
  area than a pessimist does and
and I  think that
the one one way of
looking at  the human race is to go back 500 years  to
when the printing press was just  happening
and to ask are things  generally better now than they were
then  and the answer is yeah over 500
years we  can see improvement if we look
at how  are things over the last 10 years or
the  last 50 years it doesn't look so good
  but in fact it's generally
good even  though humans are
doing many of the same  bad things that they have always done
so  one of the secrets is to
do education of  a particular
kind and hope that enough  people can
understand the consequences  of their
actions to make these societies  more
stable so it's tough you know my
my  wife always gets worried because
I work  on these problems that look like they
  will take forever and I say well the  people who built
the cathedrals knew  they were gonna die before the
cathedrals were done but they put their  bricks in there so
for these hard  problems I think what we what we need  are
people are willing to put their  bricks into the cathedral
and eventually  maybe over a hundred years or so
you get  an you get something new on the planet
  there's a nice picture was a
Cathedral  so  yeah
you found out the the viewpoints  Research Institute
I did what are your  objectives
to date and who are the
  supporters of these goals yeah so I got
  very spoiled in the 60s and 70s as
I  mentioned by having
incredible research  funding so
a lot a lot of us who got  medals from
the stuff we did then we  think that the funders should get
the  medals because they set
up the context  and that
context attracted people like  me and
we just did what came naturally
  within that context and some good things  happened
so I I think that the climate
  of funding what the funders are out
  after what extent do
they allow new  ideas to happen is
the is the  determining factor
on on this and
so  after that really
good funding went away  in the end of the 70s Xerox
PARC  happened because that funding went away  because
it's more difficult to do this  stuff within a company they
have many  objectives that don't have to do with  truth
and beauty and so about 10
years  ago I decided to try and make a
  nonprofit research organization that
was  like the processes
that we had back in  the 60s of course is much
harder to get  funding because we
have to decouple the  goals that we
work on from what the  funders goals are so
funders that are willing to just give us  money a couple
million dollars a year
  which is about ten or twelve people and
  we try and do the best we can
with this  and then when we have a success we give
it away we don't retain the intellectual  property
to it so it's a public benefit
  company and we've
done three or four  good things so far we've given them  given
them away and we work on kind of a  combination
of advanced systems design  and
education for children they
sound  like two completely different things but
  there's a lot to make
nvironments for children you have to do  advanced systems
design and many of the  ones that we've done in the past are
used by everybody today for instance the  the GUI
was something I designed  originally for children
and now two  billion people use
it because it was  designed to be fairly
easy to use it was  designed to be able to be very
general  and the kinds of things that could deal  with designed
to be easily learn about
  intuitive and so forth so
the having  children is a focus helpful helped
us  make that design and it just happened to  work well
for adults also
Geneva they  may
be found
  awesome I
think what this depends
on  what newspaper you read but if you talk  to I'm
you know I'm a real scientist and
  so the so if you look
at what scientists  say to each other there
is extremely  high probability that they
found a  particle so
the way they talk about it  is this is actually
a discovery because
  they have to go out to five six sigma of
  it being not being
chance and that's  what they've got and they've gotten it  from several
points of view from  different places and in the world
so  there is there is a particle
  that exists
at that mass and nobody
  knows whether it's the Higgs particle
  okay but do you think with
computer  technology in the near future well we  will
discover more of these things
like  maybe
yeah well I mean this is what's
interesting about computing is that  scientists actually need computers
for  what they are computers are there
to be  able to deal with models that are
more  complicated than we can hold in a single  brain
and to be able to run those models
in a way that is very difficult to do  with classical mathematics
and so they  they are a way they're
an imagination  amplifier in the one hand and they're
also a future predictor on the other  hand and
so much of modern
science is  not is not possible without computers so
it's not a question of them being useful  a lot
of what's going on in modern  science is only done because
there are  computers in the the amount of data
sifting that had to be done to identify  this particle
is not possible without  without
a computers and so
the so most  things
that people are thinking about  scientifically in the future
are  thinking about in terms of
now we've got  a new part
of something that was like  mathematics where
we can model our ideas  in the world we can model
observations  we can try and make machines that
seem  to work like the way nature does
and  this is going to affect everybody so for
  example being able to model large
  molecule interactions how proteins
react  to other molecules is
revolutionizing  the synthesis
of drugs now and this  simply
not possible to do without
  computers or without killing
lots of  animals and humans doing
experiments to  find out which which how
which drugs  influence the 20,000
we  our body so
I think this is something  that the public needs to understand
for  instance AIDS has not
been an enormous  factor in countries
that have science
  because we can
model epidemics we  understand how epidemics work it
doesn't  matter how long the
an epidemic  so
AIDS is particularly tricky because  it
takes five to seven years of  incubation
to develop the disease if
you  don't know how you're in real trouble  because
most of your population can be  infected
before you start seeing any  deaths but
if you have these models and  you can say
okay here's what this thing  is doing oh this
is this is going to  kill us eventually but
we have to get  busy now and of course
the number one  things still in all disease
in the world  that's more effective than anything is
  sanitation so a lot of the
control of  AIDS has just been done by using  sanitation
and now drugs are being  developed
to to help with it but the  virus itself
is a virus that changes  there's not
just one kind of AIDS and so
and this is going to be true of many of  the diseases that we
are now faced with  a lot of the
these flu variants are  constantly
mutating in animals and
there  are more and more pathways for getting
  diseases from animals yeah
in the  diseases that
give us a chance we
have  an excellent chance with computers now
  to try and do the modeling that will  tell
us how to build defenses against  these these drugs
I'm against these  diseases
very interesting if you've got  the time
please tell us about the  Dynabook concept
from 70s the Dynabook
so in the early
60s what this great  funding I mentioned
got interested in  the idea of
computers being interactive  which was a
new idea back then and they
  would be some
form of amplifier to
our  own intellectual it's
an interactive  intellectual amplifier and
then the  other part of it is they would be  networked
over the entire world so this
  idea was in in pretty
full form in the  early 60s so
basically I built a desktop  computer when
I was in graduate school  and I
came across Seymour Papert who had  been working
with children and computers  and he was a mathematician like
I was  and I realized that he had
hooked onto  something very important about computers
  that would help children
learn to think  mathematically much
earlier and much  easier then had
had ever been done  before this got
me to think of the  computer not so much as
a as a the  transition
from public transportation  like a
train to an automobile but it got  me to
think of the computer as something  much more
like the printing
it was actually going to change the way  we thought and
if it's something like  the printing press you want to be able  to find
out how to teach children how to  use it because adults who
go to  adulthood without learning how to read  you almost
never learn how to read so
for these are really important things  you have to do therefore so that started  me thinking
about a children's computer  more difficult was it to realize
this  project no
it was easy because the once
I started thinking about children and I  didn't worry about
exactly how you know  the real question
is what would be a  good computer for children so the first  thing was that
had to be portable  because he didn't want to tie children  to
a desk so it had you had to carry it  around
and there were 1 inch square  flatscreen
displays people are starting  to do them in the 60s
Moore's law which  is the prediction of
how silicon was  going to double every 18 months
was  three years old
so in 1968 after meeting  this
guy I just wrote I made a little
  sketch of two children doing
things on  these little flat-screen
notebook  computers that I call
the Dinah book and  when I got back to to
Utah I made a  cardboard model of it and we
filled it  up with lead pellets to see how heavy
ou could make it before you didn't want  to carry it around the
answer is a  little under a kilogram was the right  weight
in 1968 and it's the right weight  now and
so we had everything then when I  when
I went to Xerox PARC we built a
  functional machine to do this which was  again
a desktop computer but it had the  screen like
the Dynabook and the
Macintosh came out of that  so the Macintosh can
trace its lineage  back
to this little cardboard model that  I made in 1968
and yeah and the
the  people always asked how hard was that to
think about and the answer was it was  easy because the
weighted way to think  about these things is
to think about  what you actually need
  before you figure out how you can do it
  all right so you have to have a vision  of
the thing and once I had a vision of  the
thing like this then the next  question
is when can it be built and
the  answer was well about ten years
1978  1980 would be the
first time you could  do one of these things but that was good  because we
figure it would take ten  years to do the software workout
user interface provide all the services  that this
thing would have so most  people don't look at things that way
and  so they've been very firmly
tied to each  existing technology it's come along and  they've
resisted each new technology and
  so you
know the first paper I wrote  about this Dynabook pointed out you  don't
need to have a keyboard you could  have the whole surface
of it touch  sensitive and that's a description of  the iPad
and yet the iPad only
came out  a few years ago could have come out  thirty
years ago so two
different kinds  of people thinking about the world in
  very different ways okay