Points Of View: A Tribute To Alan Kay

Ian Piumarta and Kimberly Rose assembled a book Points Of View: A Tribute To Alan Kay for Alan Kay's 70th birthday. Available as free EBook for all of us.

(The title comes from a classic Alan line: Point Of View is worth 80 IQ points.)

Adele Goldberg: Alan really intended “Modeling.” A person achieves Alan’s goal if he or she can construct a computer executable model of a real world phenomenon, perhaps without understanding the detailed syntax and execution model of a professional Programming Language. The challenge question was (and still is): What combination of hardware, operating system, language, library, and user-level presentation and interaction enables general purpose modeling? Computer implemented models of how a person believes the world works—in the small or in the large—could be shared, discussed, explored, modified, and plugged together, all to help build an inquiry approach to learning. With proper tools, models could become components of larger more complex models, which could then be explored through experimentation... Models are constructed of objects, and programming becomes the task of directing the object components that make up the model to do what they know how to do... Alan used the word “kit” to name such a computer-based world for modeling. A number of kits have been created at PARC and elsewhere, with each one specific to creating models about business, science, mathematics, music, or even programming ! Each kit defines the useful primitive objects, and the tools and visualizations for finding objects, making their connections, and observing their behaviors. Kit creation faces interesting challenges, especially when the goal is a kit whose applicability is open ended, as was certainly the case with Alan’s Squeak/EToys, Finzer and Gould’s Rehearsal World [4], DavidCanfieldSmith’s Pygmalion [10] and Kid Sim [11] (which was the basis for Stage Cast), Parc Place Systems’ VisualWorks and LearningWorks, and Apple’s Fabrik.

Bert Sutherland: While the Xerox PARC Alto was envisioned as the “interim DynaBook” of Alan’s dreams, NoteTaker was Alan’s subsequent push on portability in contrast to the Alto’s advances in functionality. Notetaker was one of the early “luggable” computers, if not the first, copied shortly afterwards commercially. Alan’s constraints were that it had to run SmallTalk on battery power and fit under an airline seat. He made a triumphant return from his first road trip with his new computing suitcase. Unfortunately, it was really too cumbersome to be useful in practice and we did not make a large number. However, I recall it was interesting that it ran only Smalltalk as both its application and operating system software. No other Operating System!

Bob Stein presents some User Scenario drawings done by Glen Keane when Bob and Alan were working for Atari on the Intelligent Encyclopedia (1982-4).

  • Glen Keane: But there was that “something familiar” in Alan’s eyes. I realized it was that same youthful twinkle I had seen in my (Disney) mentors’ eyes. There was joy and Passion. It was irresistible.

John Sculley: The culmination of Alan and my year’s investigation together was conceptualized in 1987 in what we called the Knowledge Navigator... create a video simulation which would capture the experience of a professor at Berkeley using the Knowledge Navigator in the year 2009... Stanford University’s engineering school even hosted a symposium where opposing sides debated whether the future of computing metaphorically should take the form of anthropomorphic agents or avatars as we showed in our Knowledge Navigator video; or should computing be more like a prosthesis as used by Sigourney Weaver in the film Aliens?

  • email from his son Jack Sculley: Inez Fung , a preeminent atmospheric physicist who is one of my mentors at Berkeley, and I were trying to tackle the problem of what climate change would do to food webs at the nexus of rivers and oceans. We pulled up a NASA agent called Giovanni and requested a time series of data from a satellite called “SeaWifs” for the California coast from Cape Mendocino up to the Eel River mouth. Formerly this would have involved lines and lines of code to FTP ASCII files from a server and read them into a visualization program. Here we just drew a box over the area of interest, clicked the start and end times, and the Giovanni agent did the rest. While we didn’t have voice interaction, it wasn’t necessary, we had the graphical tools to quickly select the data and Giovanni had the AI to get us a presentation quality chart in about 5 seconds. Then I downloaded the data onto my MacBook Pro and pulled up a Mat Lab program I had written collaboratively with people at MIT that simulates a marine plankton food web and compared the actual satellite observations with what a planktonic web would do if it were supplied nutrients from upwelling vs. river discharge to see which model matched the data. As it turns out, they both do, with blooms in summer showing an upwelling signature and blooms in winter showing a river signature. Not the Amazon rainforest in your film but planktonic food webs are probably even more important as planetary “lungs.” As Inez pointed out, to do this in her office at MIT 20 years ago would have taken months of arduous coding. At Berkeley in 2009 it took us ten minutes.

Bobby Blatt (Vivarium): The seven-and eight-year-olds were scripting and creating small HyperCard stacks (it was called Wild Card at first and later changed to HyperCard) as part of their desert studies. These active youngsters learned the concept of a networked fileserver by playing a variation of a relay race game. They also learned fractions kinesthetically by hopping on a piezoelectric floor grid connected to a computer that, when triggered by the students’ movements on the floor grid, would produce audio and optical feedback that reinforced students’ learning when their steps on the floor grid represented correct fractional statements. The eight-and nine-year-old students in Yellow Cluster learned to navigate city systems by building a model city and serving on city commissions. Students learned to value their own intellectual property through display of their work on the History Wall, a system of 4 by 8 foot Homasote panels covering the bungalow walls. The nine-and ten-year-old students in Blue Cluster began to learn to transfer their concrete learning about systems to abstract symbolic systems as they learned to write simulation programs in the Playground language that Alan and the Vivarium computer scientists were developing. Their simulations about the dynamics of marine life were informed by their observations of the aquatic life living in the aquariums the Vivarium team had installed in their classroom bungalow. The ten-and eleven-year-old Purple Cluster students were studying JeromeBruner’s Man, a Course of Study. They were using the technology to graph, chart, and create huge HyperCard stacks to demonstrate connections, relationships and cycles. The essential questions that drove the thematic units in each cluster were: “ What is the relationship between man and his environment?” and “How are plants, animals and humans interconnected and interdependent?”

Chunka Mui: CSC had bought IndexSystems, a small Cambridge-based consulting company that soon became the intellectual driver behind the business process ReEngineering boom of the early 1990s. Mel, who was helping oversee the entire CSC commercial business, introduced Index’s management to Alan Kay and prodded them to utilize Alan’s talents as Andersen Consulting had. Rather than turn Alan on its internal issues, Index hit upon the idea to leverage his talents directly for its consulting clients. Even as Index experienced tremendous growth, Index management understood that clients were using reengineering mostly to cut costs. Clients were not attempting to create strategic change, even though that’s how reengineering had initially been envisioned. In large part, the reason was a lack of understanding of the business potential of emerging technologies. To help clients appreciate this potential, Mel and Bob Morison, an Index vice president, conceived of a research program that brought together Alan Kay and Michael Hammer, the former MIT professor who spearheaded the popularization of business reengineering. The program was to explore the strategic implications of information technology. Because of my prior relationship with Alan at Andersen and common MIT roots with Mike, I was drafted to help design and build the program. The research program, Vanguard, which I developed in conjunction with Richard Schroth, was launched in 1991. Much as Alan helped guide John Sculley through the year of discovery that led to Apple’s Knowledge Navigator concept (see John’s essay on page 49), Vanguard helped its corporate sponsors develop a rich appreciation for the breadth and depth of technology developments. With Alan’s guidance, we assembled a group of advisors that included some of the best-known technologists in the world (including several represented in this book). Our founding advisors included Doug Lenat (the noted AI researcher), Bob Lucky (head of research at Bellcore), Nicholas Negroponte (founder of the MIT MediaLab) and David Reed (former chief scientist at Lotus). Our advisors soon grew to include John Perry Barlow (former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and a leading voice in the politics of the emerging digital environment that he dubbed cyberspace, borrowing a term from WilliamGibson’s science fiction novel Neuromancer), Gordon Bell (computer architect and venture capitalist) and Larry Smarr (the noted supercomputing and networking expert). In the course of a few years, senior technology executives from more than a hundred companies in the U.S. and Europe sponsored Vanguard research and relied on our reports and private conferences to help them understand the strategic implications of emerging digital technologies.

  • Leonard Kleinrock (earlier): Vanguard was based on a member-supported model and focused on emerging technologies two to five years in the future. To hear them talk about it, Alan and Nicholas say they formed Vanguard in order to create an Advisory Board consisting of people they respected and with whom they wanted to have engaging dinner conversations on a regular basis!

David Reed: Changing the methods of the root object has to do with getting the verbs right. Not the trivial, special case verbs, but the ones that are universal, heavy with meaning , and powerful... JavaScript/E C M A Script is one of my favorite object-oriented languages since Lisp and SmallTalk. The book JavaScriptTheGoodParts [34] is one of the few books that captures the flavor of good JavaScript programming , so for the skeptical, I recommend it.

Butler Lampson: For forty years people have been working to make programming easier, faster, and more reliable. For non-programmers it’s also important for the machine to help the users state their needs precisely. So far the biggest successes have come from domain-specific imperative languages (DSL) and from providing powerful primitives that you can invoke from imperative languages. Declarative programming seeks to go further, allowing you to state what you want from the program and have the computer synthesize it, or less ambitiously, to explicitly give the machine only a few steps for it to take. This works to some extent, and it works best for specific domains and when you have big primitives. As machines get better at reasoning , as computers are integrated more deeply into application areas, and as we build bigger primitives, surely declarative programming will get better. Two things that will help are codifying more information in a form the machine can understand, and building primitives in a form that declarative programming can easily use.

Vint Cerf: Alan persuaded me to dispense with the word “teach” from my vocabulary on the grounds that teaching is not what learning is about. Learning is about discovery, often by doing as opposed to reading about or hearing about some activity.

Greg Harrold: In his typical enthusiastic way, Alan volunteered to help me with my Spanish organ. It needed some forged iron parts in keeping with its period. Amazingly, Alan bought a horseshoe forge and an anvil at a nearby farrier and blacksmith’s supply shop. Having never forged before, Alan taught himself in his backyard and then continued forging at my workshop. He long had an interest in trying his hand at organ building but I doubt he thought forging iron would be his first task!.. Above the pedalboard, on the left side, are two levers—one for next, the other for last. This was all to be directed by a HyperCard stack, which Alan would program for each piece, and the stops could still be pulled manually if desired.

Quincy Jones: Bob Moog asked me why the black musicians didn’t like to use the Moog synthesizer and I said, “Bob, it’s probably because it is electrical tone that is shaped by the instrument. You have an electrical signal and you can do one thing to it and make it a saw tooth, which is a little rougher sound, or a sine wave, which is smooth, but it doesn’t bend—and if doesn’t bend then black musicians aren’t going to deal with it because it can’t play any funk. It’s got to have that feeling.” So he immediately invented a pitch bender and a portamento attachment, and Stevie Wonder did four Grammy-winning albums after that. That’s when he did Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life.

Gordon Bell: The irony here is that Apple are the most likely people to produce a real DynaBook that can be an engaging musical instrument … including strumming on the screen and that is the missing piece in Alan’s Dynabook concept … namely electronic communications and access to the world’s knowledge riffs and all its music … will be accomplished through ITunes and Google. In this sense both Alan and Steve Jobs back then both missed the main thing : it’s not distributed/free-standing or shared/tethered that must be the design centre, it’s the right set of compromises and the infrastructure that enables both distributed and shared at the right time and the right place. Connected when you need to be and free standing when you don’t... We may already see a glimpse of the future of biography and digital immortalities. The National Library of Medicine’s Profiles in Science project encoded thirty twentieth-century scientists for twenty-first century scholarly study, containing over 180,000 files (mostly scanned from paper) [74]. Striking towards digital immortality, Carnegie Mellon created a virtual Albert Einstein that one can question and receive answers from, and similar effort has been made for Darwin... What, they asked Emory University’s Woodruff Library, would they do with Salman Rushdie’s archives, which included five MacBooks and a sixty gigabyte disk [75]? The library grappled with the obvious need to back up all the contents. However, in order to protect the value of the Intellectual Property of Emory’s unique digital asset it must be scarce (Artificial Scarcity), i.e., no copies and limited access. Thus, the content can only be viewed at a single protected physical site, just like the special archive rooms in every large library.

Danny Hillis: I now understand that Alan Kay is an Architect, by which I mean someone who deliberately designs the world in which we will live. In Alan’s own words, he is someone who “invents the future.” To do this successfully, an architect must perceive the possibilities of reality and guide them into the service of practicable human goals. This is not easy. I have learned from Alan that it requires tapping into three sources of power, which I will call Knowledge, Imagination, and Conviction. The successful architect must possess the knowledge to know what is possible, the imagination to see what is desirable, and the conviction to build a connection between them. Any two of these traits can be useless, or even dangerous, without the third. The greatest architects possess all three.

Edited:    |       |    Search Twitter for discussion