A thirst for knowledge and ideas

8th September 2000 at 01:00
Three decades ago he helped invent personal computing and, since then, Dr Alan Kay has not stopped innovating. Dorothy Walker talks to the man who always read far beyond the textbook

The best way to predict the future is to invent it." So says Dr Alan Kay, who made his own big step towards the future over three decades ago, when he helped invent personal computing.

Kay also came up with the idea of the laptop machine. Thanks to him, today we drive our computers simply by pointing and clicking - his software was the first to let people work this way. And he is one of the fathers of object-oriented programming, now the standard way of building new software.

At Fusion 2000 (see centre pages), Kay will deliver a keynote address: "Explore the educational possibilities of technology". The theme is not only the focus of this American's current work; it has dominated most of his career. It was a chance visit to a group of children that convinced Kay of the educational potential of ICT and inspired him to come up with the kind of technology we are now so familiar with.

In the late Sixties, Kay was at the University of Utah, working on the design of the FLEX, a tabletop computer. FLEX was a technical masterpiece, but still required programming skill to make useful. Kay, a talented programmer, was wrestling with the problem of how to make it more accessible for everyone, when he heard about the work of Seymour Papert.

Papert had invented LOGO, a programming language designed to help children discover knowledge, which was to become as well known in schools as the robotic floor turtles which it enabled youngsters to control. Kay decided to take a trip to Massachusetts to see it in action. Kay says: "I saw 11 and 12-year-olds who were playing, but in the course of their play they were using the fundamental ideas of calculus, in a computerised form.

"On the plane that evening, I stopped thinking about a desktop computer, and started to imagine what a computer for a child would be like. I thought it should look like a notebook, have a flat-screen display, and have an even more powerful language than LOGO that would let you simulate ideas more easily."

He called his dream machine the Dynabook, and set about demonstrating the concept. Not all the technology was available to make it work the way he wanted, but its influence was enormous.

Chief among the spin-offs was Smalltalk, the programming language Kay designed for the Dynabook, and which he began using with children when he moved to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) in California in 1972. Kay had observed that children responded well to pictures and animation. Smalltalk allowed them to work or play by pointing a mouse at pictues and menus on the screen. No longer did they have to speak the computer's language - the computer understood theirs. It was a revolutionary idea.

And when Steve Jobs, founder of the fledgling Apple Computer, visited Kay in 1979, and saw a machine being driven this way, Jobs remembers it as "the best thing I had ever seen in my life". The visit gave rise to Apple's distinctive style of software, and it changed the way the world used computers.

In 1984 Kay himself joined Apple, as a Fellow, to continue exploring the educational potential of ICT, focusing on the unique powers of the medium.

Kay's belief in the power of argument - he maintains that "a new point of view is worth 80 IQ points" - was reinforced by his own experiences as a schoolboy in Massachusetts. He says: "By the age of five I had read several hundred books, so I knew in the first grade that they were lying to me. I had already been exposed to other points of view.

"At school there was one book, called the textbook. Teachers hated the idea that a student was reading alternative ideas in other books. It turned every class from 'This is the way it is,' into 'Let's have a discussion!'" Today he leads a team at Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney's research and creative development organisation in California. He says: "We are making progress on the idea of teaching children deep mathematical and scientific thinking, through constructive activities they think of as play."

"Computers can give people a gut feel for an enormous range of phenomena," he says, citing a simple simulation enabling children to discover how quickly an outbreak of disease can turn into a major epidemic. Moving dots "infect" one another on an area of the screen and a graph plots the course of the epidemic. He says: "With computers, you can represent everything that has ever been done in print, and also represent concepts as mathematical theatre - that makes them very special."

The software they use today is Squeak, an offshoot of Kay's original Smalltalk which can work on tiny devices such as handheld computers. "The systems give children enormous leeway for creating dynamic media about things that really interest them. A pencil gives you a lot of freedom - once you pick it up and begin to make marks, you have the facility to draw a flower or write a sonata. Our interest is in getting children comfortable with the powerful equivalent of a pencil."

And in the firm belief that "a really good toy doesn't have a ceiling on it", he is aiming his software at adults too. "I plan to give it to friends like scientist Richard Dawkins, so that they can use it for constructive projects. That would give us the start of some real 21st century media."

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