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Alan Kay on Computing

July 15th, 2004 · No Comments

Fortune has a discussion with one of computing’s pioneers :

Kay is now a senior fellow at HP Labs, where he continues his work. I was talking to him recently, though, because he has just been awarded an extraordinary trio of prizessort of a triple crown of computingin honor of his many years of extraordinary breakthroughs. First, in February, he was one of four former PARC researchers to be given the nation’s top engineering awardthe Charles Stark Draper Prizeby the National Academy of Engineering. Then in April the Association for Computing Machinery gave him its Turing Award, sometimes called the “Nobel Prize of Computing.” Finally, in June, he won the annual Kyoto Prize given by the Inamori Foundation of Japan, which comes with a cash award of approximately $450,000 and aims to recognize those who not only contribute to technical progress but also to “human development.” This is a man with plenty of laurels to rest on.

But I was struck most by how much he thinks we haven’t yet done. “We’re running on fumes technologically today,” he says. “The sad truth is that 20 years or so of commercialization have almost completely missed the point of what personal computing is about.”

For him, computers should be tools for creativity and learning, and they are falling short. At Xerox PARC the aim of much of Kay’s research was to develop systems to aid in education. But business, instead, has been the primary user of personal computers since their invention. And business, he says, “is basically not interested in creative uses for computers.”

If business users were less shortsighted, Kay says, they would seek to create computer models of their companies and constantly simulate potential changes. But the computers most business people use today are not suited for that. That’s because, he says, today’s PC is too dedicated to replicating earlier tools, like ink and paper. “[The PC] has a slightly better erase function but it isn’t as nice to look at as a printed thing. The chances that in the last week or year or month you’ve used the computer to simulate some interesting idea is zerobut that’s what it’s for.”

Kay also decries what he sees as a fundamental failing of the webit is primarily an environment for displaying information, not for authoring it. “You can read a document in Microsoft Word, and write a document in Microsoft Word. But the people who did web browsers I think were too lazy to do the authoring part.”

So what is Kay trying to build now? Nothing less than “a new way of doing objects, operating systems, and networks, that makes use of the infrastructure we already have.” Kay’s ultimate dream is to completely remake the way we communicate with each other. At the least, he wants to enable people to collaborate and work together simply and elegantly. For him, “the primary task of the Internet is to connect every person to every other person.” In techie terms, he is working on an infinitely scalable system for “real-time immersive collaboration done entirely as peer-to-peer machines.” In other words, a system by which anybody could connect to anybody else at any time without having to go through some server.

To get a taste of what kind of world Kay thinks is possible instead, go to Squeakland.org and download a free, open-source program called Squeak. Calling it a program is probably an insult. Kay, its primary progenitor, calls it “a language, a tool, an environment primarily designed to help children and change the way learning is done.” It is a version of the Smalltalk object-oriented programming language Kay invented years agoand a relatively easy way for even kids to become programmers.

Squeak is primarily used today to help children visualize math and science problems in a fun way, but related tools may have far more wide-ranging uses as we move toward the more interactive Internet that Kay envisions.

I will be writing more about “Reinventing Computing” in my Tech Talk series in August.

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