Organick Lecture – University of Utah – Alan Kay

Phil Windley
blogged about this lecture series, and the fact that Alan Kay
was speaking today. I had to take the time to come and hear Alan,
as his focus on computing for children and education demonstrates a
true commitment to the future.

I have often used his quote: The best way to predict the future is to invent it. His opening slide had the quote … slightly modified … toggling between:

  • Is the Best Way To Predict The Future To Invent It?
  • Is the Best Way To Predict The Future To Prevent It?

His talk is about about Computer Science and Software Engineering … are they Oxymorons?

Some points from his talk:

  • he feels that our industry has been mired for years … perhaps since the 1970’s
  • the commercialization of Personal Computers was a tremendous
    distraction from computer science … and we may never recover from
    this distraction
  • computer science is teaching non-scalable algorythms and data structures
  • this is like teaching gears … something that is non-scalable
  • the Internet is a vastly different solution that is highly distributed and operates non-stop … and scales
  • the human body consists of 100 trillions cells, created through only 50 cell divisions
  • all of the atoms in your body have been changed out within the last 7 years … even your bones!

He talked about Bob Barton, and his early work and papers. He
referenced a paper that outlines seven of the top ten things that
people ought to know about software. He said it is worth reading
the six page paper … that includes a full page bashing IBM. The
slide about Bob referenced the Burroughs B5000 built in 1961. Bob
taught by destroying traditional thought … allowing more freedom to
contemplate what is possible.

He began to talk about “engineering” and gave several examples of what
he feels is real engineering – the building of the Empire State
Building (<3000 people for <11 months start to occupancy), the
massive pumps that survived the longest during the Katrina hurricane – built in 1922 and 1912!

He talked about the real meaning of the word “Architecture” – the
building of arches. He used this to connect
analogies of Microsoft Windows, and the ancient pyramids of
Egypt. The Egyptians had no arches, and so they built the
pyramids by piling on rock, creating a “garbage dump”, and then
covering it with a “pretty UI”. It was only those who understood
and perfected the building of arches that truly developed architecture.

Humans have been on earth for ~100,000+ years, however Science has only
been around for ~400. But it didn’t emerge from genetic evolution
… so Science has always existed. He then showed the video
called “Private Universe” which was a series of interviews with Harvard
University graduates who were being asked basic questions about “What
causes the seasons?” and “What causes the phases of the moon?”
The majority were not able to answer accurately.

I have to admit that I stopped taking notes as Alan went into a very
interesting conversation about the Future of Printing. He started
to talk about the original printing press, and how it immediately began
to be used to mimic the handwritten manuscript books of the time …
instead of creating a new type of communications … a new medium to argue within society and to present new ideas.

Alan used this as a way
to describe the revelation that hit him when he first thought of
children using computers. Up to that point, they had simply
thought of computers looking like terminals, without the mainframe. He
drew a cartoon back in the 1960s of children using what would become
his idea of the dynabook.

He emphasized the stagnent aspects of computer science and software
engineering … at the end he questioned how students of these
disciplines were using yesterdays technologies – hardware and software
– when trying to create the solutions of the future. He commented
that it was only because his team was using $20,000 computers more
powerful than anything in its time, that they were able to create
solutions for the future. This is a really good point …

As usual … an amazing presentation that spurs a lot of thoughts.

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