An Interview with Computing Pioneer Alan Kay

Born in 1940, computer scientist Alan Curtis Kay is one of a handful of visionaries most responsible for the concepts which have propelled personal computing forward over the past thirty years.

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Alan Kay

Kids using Dynabooks, in a drawing from Alan Kay's 1972 paper "A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages"

Born in 1940, computer scientist Alan Curtis Kay is one of a handful of visionaries most responsible for the concepts which have propelled personal computing forward over the past thirty years — and surely the most quotable one.

He’s the man who said that “The best way to predict the future is to invent it” and that “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born” and that “If you don’t fail at least 90 percent of the time, you’re not aiming high enough.” And when I first saw Microsoft’s Surface tablet last June, a Kay maxim helped me understand it: “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

[image] Alan Kay

Viewpoints Research Institute

Above all, however, Kay is known for the Dynabook — his decades-old vision of a portable suite of hardware, software, programming tools and services which would add up to the ultimate creative environment for kids of all ages. Every modern portable computer reflects elements of the Dynabook concept — the One Laptop Per Child project’s XO above all others — and yet none of them have fully realized the concept which Kay was writing about in the early 1970s.

Actually, Kay says that some gadgets with superficial Dynabook-like qualities, such as the iPad, have not only failed to realize the Dynabook dream, but have in some senses betrayed it. That’s one of the points he makes in this interview, conducted by computer historian David Greelish, proprietor of the Classic Computing Blog and organizer of this month’s Vintage Computer Festival Southeast in Atlanta. (The Festival will feature a pop-up Apple museum featuring Xerox’s groundbreaking Alto workstation, which Kay worked on, as well as devices which deeply reflected his influence, including the Lisa, the original Macintosh and the Newton.)

Kay and Greelish also discuss Kay’s experiences at some of the big outfits where he’s worked, including Xerox’s fabled PARC labs, Apple, Disney and HP. Today, Kay continues his research about children and technology at his own organization, the Viewpoints Research Institute.

–Harry McCracken

David Greelish: Do you agree that we now essentially have the Dynabook, as expressed in the three tiers of modern personal computing; the notebook, tablet and smartphone? If not, what critical features do you see missing from these? Have they delivered on the promise of improving education?

Alan Kay: I have been asked versions of this question for the last twenty years or so. Ninety-five percent of the Dynabook idea was a “service conception,” and five percent had to do with physical forms, of which only one — the slim notebook — is generally in the public view. (The other two were an extrapolated version of Ivan Sutherland’s head mounted display, and an extrapolated version of Nicholas Negroponte’s ideas about ubiquitous computers embedded and networked everywhere.)

[image] Dynabook

Alan Kay

A Dynabook, as depicted in Kay’s 1972 paper

In order to talk about the service idea, I generally just stick with the minimum that had to be delivered (even though a great hope back in the ’60s was that AI would progress enough to allow “helpful agents” — as in [pioneering computer scientist John] McCarthy’s “Advice Taker” — to be a pillar of the user-interface experience). We invented the overlapping window, icons, etc., graphical-user interface at PARC and just concentrated on it when it became clear that the “helpful agent” wasn’t going to show up in the decade of the ’70s (and still hasn’t).

The interesting thing about this question is that it is quite clear from the several early papers that it was an ancillary point for the Dynabook to be able to simulate all existing media in an editable/authorable form in a highly portable networked (including wireless) form. The main point was for it to be able to qualitatively extend the notions of “reading, writing, sharing, publishing, etc. of ideas” literacy to include the “computer reading, writing, sharing, publishing of ideas” that is the computer’s special province.

For all media, the original intent was “symmetric authoring and consuming”.

Isn’t it crystal clear that this last and most important service is quite lacking in today’s computing for the general public? Apple with the iPad and iPhone goes even further and does not allow children to download an Etoy made by another child somewhere in the world. This could not be farther from the original intentions of the entire ARPA-IPTO/PARC community in the ’60s and ’70s.

Apple’s reasons for this are mostly bogus, and to the extent that security is an issue, what is insecure are the OSes supplied by the vendors (and the insecurities are the result of their own bad practices — they are not necessary).

Do our modern personal computing devices augment education? Have they lived up to what was foreseen in the past? Are they really helping teachers teach in the classroom?

The perspective on this is first to ask whether the current educational practices are even using books in a powerful and educative way. Or even to ask whether the classroom process without any special media at all is educative.

I would say, to a distressing extent, the answer is “no.”

The education establishment in the U.S. has generally treated the computer (a) first as undesirable and shunned it, (b) as sort of like a typewriter, (c) not as a cheap but less legible textbook with smaller pages, etc. (d) as something for AP testing, (e) has not ventured into what is special about computing with reference to modeling ideas and helping to think about them.

This in spite of pioneers such as Seymour Papert explaining both in general (and quite a bit specifically) just what it is and how it can revolutionize education.

I’ve used the analogy of what would happen if you put a piano in every classroom. If there is no other context, you will get a “chopsticks” culture, and maybe even a pop culture. And this is pretty much what is happening.

In other words, “the music is not in the piano”.

What do you think about the trend that these devices are becoming purely communication and social tools? What do you see as good or bad about that? Is current technology improving or harming the social skills of children and especially teens? How about adults?

Social thinking requires very exacting thresholds to be powerful. For example, we’ve had social thinking for 200,000 years and hardly anything happened that could be considered progress over most of that time. This is because what is most pervasive about social thinking is “how to get along and mutually cope.” Modern science was only invented 400 years ago, and it is a good example of what social thinking can do with a high threshold. Science requires a society because even people who are trying to be good thinkers love their own thoughts and theories — much of the debugging has to be done by others. But the whole system has to rise above our genetic approaches to being social to much more principled methods in order to make social thinking work.

By contrast, it is not a huge exaggeration to point out that electronic media over the last 100+ years have actually removed some of day to day needs for reading and writing, and have allowed much of the civilized world to lapse back into oral societal forms (and this is not a good thing at all for systems that require most of the citizenry to think in modern forms).

For most people, what is going on is quite harmful.

In traditional personal computing (desktops & laptops) the graphical user interface/desktop paradigm is now well established at 20+ years, having become dominant sometime after the Apple Macintosh with Microsoft’s Windows 3.1 in 1992. Do you see this changing anytime soon? What might replace it? Or will these types of computers always use this type of interface for the foreseeable future?

The current day UIs derived from the PARC-GUI [the interface developed in the 1970s by Kay and his colleagues at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center] have many flaws, including those that were in the PARC-GUI in the first place. In addition, there have been backslidings — for example, even though multitouch is a good idea (pioneered by Nicholas Negroponte’s ARCH-MAC group [a predecessor of MIT’s Media Lab] in the late ’70s), much of the iPad UI is very poor in a myriad of ways.

[image] Xerox Alto

Courtesy Lonnie Mimms

Xerox’s Alto workstation, the 1973 system, co-created by Kay, which profoundly influenced the Macintosh and Windows

There are some elements of the PARC-style GUI that are likely to stick around even if undergoing a few facelifts. For example, we generally want to view and edit more than one kind of scene at the same time — this could be as simple as combining pictures and text in the same glimpse, or to deal with more than one kind of task, or to compare different perspectives of the same model. Pointing and dragging are likely to stick, because they are simple extensions of hands and fingers. One would hope that “modeless” would stick, though there are many more modes now than in the original PARC and Mac interfaces. “Undo” should stick (for obvious reasons), but it is very weakly present in the iPad, etc.

There is also the QWERTY phenomenon, where a good or bad idea becomes really bad and sticks because it is ingrained in usage. There are many examples of this in today’s interfaces.

There is the desire of a consumer society to have no learning curves. This tends to result in very dumbed-down products that are easy to get started on, but are generally worthless and/or debilitating. We can contrast this with technologies that do have learning curves, but pay off well and allow users to become experts (for example, musical instruments, writing, bicycles, etc. and to a lesser extent automobiles). [Douglas] Engelbart’s interface required some learning but it paid off with speed of giving commands and efficiency in navigation and editing. People objected, and laughed when Doug told them that users of the future would spend many hours a day at their screens and they should have extremely efficient UIs they could learn to be skilled in.

[Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the mouse, demonstrates his user interface in 1968]

There is the general desire of people to be change adverse — “people love change except for the change part” — this includes the QWERTY and no-learning-curve ideas.

Part of the motivation for the PARC GUI came from our desire to have a universal display screen which could display anything — this led to the bitmap screen. One drawback of these screens and the screens today is that the visual angle of the display (about 40°) is much narrower than the human visual field (which is about 135° vertically and 160° horizontally for each eye). This is critical because most of the acuity of an eye is in the fovea (~1-2°) but the rest of the retina has some acuity and is very responsive to changes (which cause the eye to swing to bring the fovea on the change).

Head mounted displays can have extremely wide fields of view, and when these appear (they will resemble lightweight glasses), they will allow a rather different notion of UI — note that huge fields of view through glasses will help both 2-1/2 D and 3D graphics, and the UIs that go along with them.

This suggests many new design ideas for future GUIs, and they will slowly happen.

You were an Apple Fellow at Apple [in the 1980s] while John Sculley was CEO and when the video of the Knowledge Navigator was released. How much influence did you have on that set of ideas and the video? How involved were you with the Newton?

John has recounted this in his book and website. I suggest you look at his version. He asked me to come up with “a modern version of the Dynabook” (which was pretty funny, since we still didn’t have a Dynabook). I contributed ideas from a variety of sources, including myself, Negroponte, AI, etc. The production team was really good. Doris Mitch and Hugh Dubberly did the heavy lifting. Michael Markman was the ringmaster (and quite a remarkable person and thinker). We did a few more of these concept videos for John after the success of the KN video.

[John Sculley’s 1987 “Knowledge Navigator” future-vision video]

I had many grazing encounters with the Newton (this was a very complicated project and politics on all fronts). Back in the Dynabook design days I had determined pretty carefully that, while you could do a very good character recognizer (the GRAIL project at RAND had one in the ’60s), you still needed a keyboard. Apple Marketing did not want a keyboard because they feared it would then compete with the Mac. Then there was the siren’s song of trying to recognize handwriting rather than printing — and they plunged (this was a terrible decision). And so on and so forth. One of the heroes of the Newton was [PARC and Mac veteran] Larry Tesler who took over the project at the end and made it happen.

Is the realization of an intelligent software or user agent the key to the end of the desktop metaphor in desktop and laptop computing? Artificial Intelligence (AI) did not progress anywhere near as fast as many people had thought in the last 40+ years, so at the rate it’s developing, when might we have AI like what the Knowledge Navigator showed? (Like 1966′s Star Trek, even?)

Having an intelligent secretary does not get rid of the need to read, write, and draw, etc. In a well functioning world, tools and agents are complementary. Most progress in research comes when funding is wise and good. That has not been the case for 30 years or so. AI is a difficult problem, but solvable in important ways. It took 12+ years of funding to create personal computing and pervasive networking, and this only happened because there was a wise and good funder (ARPA-IPTO). If we include commercialization, this took a little more than 20 years (from 1962 to 1984 when the Mac appeared).

It’s important to realize that no one knew how difficult a problem this was, but it was seen as doable and the funder hung in there. It’s likely that “good AI” is a 15-20 year problem at this point. But the only way to find out is to set up a national effort and hang in there with top people.

You were both an Apple Fellow in the Advanced Technology Group at Apple Computer and a Disney Fellow at Walt Disney Imagineering. Can you comment about the similarities and differences in the culture of the two companies?

I’ve been a Fellow in a number of companies: Xerox, Apple, Disney, HP. There are certain similarities because all the Fellows programs were derived from IBM’s, which itself was derived from the MIT “Institute Professor” program. Basically: autonomy, a stipend large enough to start projects without permission, option to be a lone wolf or run a group or be in a group, access to upper management to give advice whether solicited or not, etc.

All public companies are faced with dealing with the market and their stockholders, and the deadly three-month assessment. How they deal with these issues is somewhat different. Also the kind of business a company is in often affects its style (though marketing and finance people are rather similar no matter what a company is doing). The most different of all these companies in its dynamics and style was the “show biz” company Disney, under Michael Eisner during my five years there.

However, Xerox PARC was the most different of all of the experiences, because the research itself there had been protected by [PARC Computer Science Laboratory founder] Bob Taylor especially for the first five years. So this was mostly idyllic and I think we were all the most productive we’d ever been over all of our careers, past, present and future (at least I was). All the other companies — including the rest of Xerox — had much less effective ideas about research and how it should be done and who should do it.

I should say that I had always loved [Disney theme-park design and engineering organization] Imagineering and the Imagineers, and had known a number of them over the years as well as some of [Disney's] original “9 Old Men” animators (such as Frank Thomas). Disney had two basic tribes, both at extremes: “the creatives” and “the suits”. It was a thrill to work with the extreme that was “the creatives”, there were lots of them and they could do anything and loved to do anything. I don’t know how to say anything evenhanded about the other tribe.

As far as Apple goes, it was a different company every few years from the time I joined in 1984. There was Steve [Jobs] — an elemental force — and then there was no Steve. There was John [Sculley]. He was pretty good, but the company grew so fast and started getting very dysfunctional. And then on downhill.

One way to think of all of these organizations is to realize that if they require a charismatic leader who will shoot people in the knees when needed, then the corporate organization and process is a failure. It means no group can come up with a good decision and make it stick just because it is a good idea. All the companies I’ve worked for have this deep problem of devolving to something like the hunting and gathering cultures of 100,000 years ago. If businesses could find a way to invent “agriculture” we could put the world back together and all would prosper.

What comments do you have on how the decentralization of computing seems to be heading back towards centralization with personal (modern) computing? Is the cloud over-hyped?

There was always a “cloud” in the ARPA view of things — this is why we invented the networks we did. The jury is still out on whether the ways in which what is presented as a new idea will actually be a good manifestation of the pretty obvious synergies between local and global computing.

David Greelish has studied computer history and collected old computers for over 20 years now. He is a computer historian, writer, podcaster and speaker. He was the founder of the original Historical Computer Society, publisher of the zine Historically Brewed and is currently the founder of the Atlanta Historical Computing Society. He has published all of his computer history zines along with his own story in the book, The Complete Historically Brewed. He is currently the director of the Vintage Computer Festival Southeast 1.0 being held the weekend of April 20-21 in the greater Atlanta area.

9 comments
alex.repenning
alex.repenning

To Alen 

yes, Codea code sharing looks really limited. With AgentSheets we focused early on, in fact I would think we were probably the first ones, social computing support trough browsers. Netscape was just a year old when AgentSheets Behavior Exchange users could already drag and drop not just code but also agents, worlds and even entire projects from web pages: 

http://www.cs.colorado.edu/~ralex/papers/PDF/VL96.pdf 

Just like Apple on iPads appears to now make it really hard for users to exchange end user programs back then this kind of functionality somewhat eroded as browser developers gradually removed some of this drag and drop functionality because of "security concerns". At the end of the day technology, sadly, appears to be much more geared towards consumers than producers. However,  this is not a new development. This is the case now and was the case back in 1995. 

Cheers,  Alex


Alanone
Alanone

To KGelner

Let's try some process here. First, you can actually find out that Etoys is an authoring environment used my millions of children around the world, by simply typing "Etoys" into Google. Even more children of all ages use Etoys' younger sibling Scratch.

Among other features, Etoys has a massively parallel particle system for letting children program simulations from gas particles to ants to slime molds. This system requires access to the CPU (Javascript and Lua are not fast enough at this point).

Second, here's what we found by poking around Codea. It appears that what can be done with Codea is still very limited and is in no sense a parallel to what Etoys and Scratch users have been used to for many years.

Here's what the Codea developers wrote about it:

    http://twolivesleft.com/news/codea-and-code-sharing/

The situation is unchanged.

Their current FAQ says (http://twolivesleft.com/Codea/Talk/discussion/275/faq-please-read/p1)
=================
Q: How can I share my code?

A: We can't provide built-in options for this, but several clever forum members have developed great tools for importing and exporting projects.
=================

These "tools" are basically source code you have to copy/paste once, which will then load more code from a web repository. In order to download "projects" you also have to "hack" Codea to remove some of the restrictions they put into the Lua interpreter. The Codea developers put in some customization hooks for that (in particular, you can override LuaSandbox.lua), but you need a separate computer to put some files in the right magic place:

https://bitbucket.org/TwoLivesLeft/core/wiki/com.twolivesleft.Codify

As far as I can tell there is no substantial project sharing going on.

And though it might be a bit of an improvement to be able to make iPad apps that can be brokered through the app store, this is not remotely what personal computing and the Internet were invented for (which was to have many kinds of sharing in a public domain resource.

Best wishes,

Alan (Kay)


websquad
websquad

I remember fondly when my boss had a Xerox STAR installed on my desk.  An exciting machine.  I had used real-time terminals at Lockheed in the early-mid 60's, but this was another thing.  My use was fairly limited to creating and editing documents, but it was exciting.  Heady days, indeed.

KGelner
KGelner

It is not the case that you cannot share "eToys" with an iPad - that simply happens within the context of an application.  The iPad is not A dynabook, but it allows for the creation of dynabook-like behaviors...  one example is Codea, which enabled you to create programs on an iPad.  You can take those programs and share them with others.  That is exactly sharing an eToy with another.


KGelner
KGelner

@Alanone Thanks for the reply, although I have to say that "etoys" is so generic a name I had no inkling that it was a specific product, and not a generalized term for a digital product.  I know some kids using Scratch and had even read about Sqeak (spending a lot of time myself with Scheme in college) but had never heard of eToys, and I've been interested in helping kids learn technology for quick some time (also participating as a judge in local programs like robotics competitions).

This would seem to be borne out by searching in Google also for "toys iPad client", where we find such a thing has been built to beta form:

http://etoys.squeak.org/experimental/ipad/

But if you follow the Beta link you'll find there was not enough interest from people testing and so the project was abandoned.  So it's not like the iPad cannot be used as a Sqeak tool, just that interest in doing so seems to be low.

There's no reason an iPad client could not use the Accelerate framework (which makes use of the GPU for parallel calculations) or OpenGL shaders for things like particle simulators.

Much can be done in the same spirit using other modern tools; Codea is one of them.  If there's not much project sharing going on then doing something to promote that would seem a more effective way to help kids than trying to push Squeak to the iPad which appears to be stalled.  


MarkMiller
MarkMiller

@KGelner @Alanone

I'm in agreement with Alan. I have a friend who works for Adobe Systems. They made a big deal about Apple banning Flash from iOS through their revised developer license, and I took the opportunity to study their developer license at that time. At first when Apple did this they said that you could *only* write source code for iOS in any of Apple's approved languages, which included C, C++, Objective C, or JavaScript using Webkit. This effectively banned Squeak, and any apps. written in it, from the iOS platform as well, because Squeak is written in itself (called Slang, a subset of Smalltalk). Several apps. developed in Squeak for the iPhone were taken off the App Store. A few months later, Apple backtracked a bit on the license, and it looked like Squeak would be allowed again, since they allowed interpreters or VMs outside of Apple's approved list of languages, *but* the *entire app.* had to be included with the interpreter/VM, the interpreter/VM could only run that app., and neither the app. nor the interpreter/VM was allowed to download additional code from any source. So you could write an app. in Squeak that would meet those terms, and put it up on the App Store, but the entire environment had to be "trapped in amber" from that point forward. Conceivably, still, a Squeak-based iOS app. could allow someone to write code on their iOS device, but they could not share it (ie. no other iOS device user could download that code), except on a non-iOS platform.

Alanone
Alanone

@KGelner @Alanone

I just asked Bert Freudenberg -- a colleague who was also at the other end of the link you gave -- about the current situation. Here's what he said:

"He [Gelner] suggests "doing something to promote project sharing". Which is precisely what Apple discourages. The best example is Scratch, where kids have shared more than 3 million projects because sharing is built in. But Apple rejected Scratch because it is not allowed to execute these projects on iOS devices:

http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2010/04/apple-scratch-app

The Codea developers themselves had a much simpler project sharing built in, but Apple forced them to remove it:

http://twolivesleft.com/news/codea-and-code-sharing/

The reason, from Apple's point of view, appears to be that this would circumvent the App Store review process. A Codea project (like an Etoys project or a Scratch project) is basically the same as an app. "

This is the case today. We are talking about applications that will run on the iPad today but cannot share the creations of the users over the Internet because of Apple's rules. 

When the iPad first came out, Apple would not even allow interpreters to be downloaded and run. I spent quite a bit of time with Steve and others to get this changed. But they have been intransigent so far about the sharing issues.

As I said in the interview, this is anti the spirit of personal computing, and especially the spirit of the inventors who brought personal computing and world wide networks to the world.


Alanone
Alanone

@KGelner @Alanone Now you are helping me to make my main point -- which is that "the iPad is not in the spirit of personal computing, especially for children". And that "for all media, the original intent was symmetric authoring and consuming", and the iPad is most certainly not symmetric in those activities.

And, in any case I ask you to consider the spirit of your own reply and the change of context that was required to make your own reply.

I was asked the question: "Do you agree that we now essentially have the Dynabook, as expressed in the three tiers of modern personal computing; the notebook, tablet and smartphone? If not, what critical features do you see missing from these? Have they delivered on the promise of improving education?"

Don't you see that requiring people to find and use arcane workarounds even if they worked has nothing to do with this question and my answer?


KGelner
KGelner

@Alanone @KGelner I agree that Apple's policies are overly restrictive, and that they should change.  I think they are absurd and a limitation the platform does not need to have.  I myself was one of the people who pressed Apple to remove the restrictions on interpreters.

That said, you simply are not correct when you say Codea users  "cannot" share projects over the internet.  Just one example is publishing your Codea project through Git where anyone could see it and use it:

https://github.com/ruilov/GitClient-Release

Yes it would be FAR better if the sharing within the application were allowed.  But it does not stop someone from sharing today.  Nor would it stop an app with Dropbox integration from making it very easy to get projects and files in and out.

Just because some of Apple's policies are mistaken, does not mean the platform itself cannot be a valuable tool to further truly personal computing.  There are many ways around policy limitations; it's good to fight bad policy but it should not rule your life if there are viable technical alternatives.