Today's date:
Spring 1984

Interview: Alan Kay

Alan C. Kay is the Chief Scientist at Atari Computer. In 1969, he developed a prototype personal computer for LTV Corporation. He was later a senior researcher with the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Project and then a leading scientist at the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). He is also the creator of SMALLTALK.

In this interview Kay discusses education, computers in schools and the potential of new information technology in the Third World.

NPQ: What is the potential of the computer as you see it?

KAY: I once gave a talk about a wonderful device that is solid state, lasts for a hundred years, is totally portable, you can carry it anywhere and it's able to store 2.5 million bites. All of these things were contained in a basic little organization of knowledge called a b-o-o-k. A computer is, in a sense, a book with an unlimited number of pages.

The one thing the computer does have is more intrinsic fascination because you can, in a way, change the book itself. You can try different things on it. You can inbed yourself more deeply into the process of transmitting experience and information.

Now, I was pointing out the personal computer has been with us a long time, called a "book," and that teaching kids BASIC, or even LOGO is not going to get them to access what is powerful in a computer anymore than just getting them to do word recognition or reading Dick and Jane.

So, what I'm saying is, you can't make people love knowledge even with full access to information, As Seymour Papert used to say, "you can lead a child to Euclid, but you can't make him think."

NPQ: It sounds as if you are quite temperate about the capacity of the computer to change society for the better?

KAY: I'm not pessimistic at all. You just have to understand the limits of mere technology.

Let me give you an example: A piano is a really powerful medium. You can play most music on it. Culture is devised on it. It's just a tremendous amplifier. Okay, then, let's put several pianos in a classroom, like a third grade classroom, and expose the kids to the pianos and ask ourselves what is going to happen.

Some of the kids will actually compose a little music. But, if you look at the history of piano playing, it took 200 years to work out an efficient technique. You have to teach a person to play piano, but just as you can't do it in a boot camp, you also can't do it in fairyland. There has to be a whole environment where you see other people doing it. Then you get the aesthetics and the emotions that go along with it.

I think technology is well, you know, I build harpsichords. I love musical instruments. I love technology. However, if you don't have the music in you, you aren't going to get it out of a hunk of junk. One of the reasons musicians make fabulous computer people is that they have the proper contempt for the machine. They Iove it, but they know what it's good for.

NPQ: What are some of the changes that computer technology can bring to education?

KAY: I think the biggest difference is the enormous variety of things that kids can be operational with. The abstract can become concrete and the concrete abstract. This is the key to learning. The computer's ability to offer something that a child is likely to be interested in is unparalleled.

I hated school except for a couple of grades. In one of them I had a teacher who took everything the State of New York wanted us to learn in the fourth grade and built it into three problem-research projects. The projects were each several months long, There were no classes, but each kid had an individual research project and we also had group research projects. Well, they had to beat us away from the door. I loved it. We were learning through direct involvement in concrete problem solving,

NPQ: How does the use of computers duplicate that experience?

KAY: You can teach someone by telling, you can teach someone by showing, or you can teach someone by getting them to do it. Okay, what way do you think works best? Getting them to do it, right?

Piaget does not get kids to stand up, close their eyes and imitate a turtle for nothing. That whole muscular brain knows a heck of a lot about the world that the visual brain does not. And the visual brain knows a heck of a lot about the world that the symbolic brain doesn't.

The computer has a way of involving every sensate and intellectual facility that a person has because it can involve them in physical, visual and symbolic ways. What's more, being able to trade off amongst these is vastly superior to learning some sort of dry logic that never leads anywhere and the consequences of which can't be experienced.

NPQ: And the computer has the capacity to do that?

KAY: The computer can do all of those things because it is enfranchising. For instance, one of the things you have to learn to do in music is orchestrate. You can imagine that it is not an easy task if you don't have an orchestra to play what you've written. Mendelssohn was the only composer whose father was rich enough to buy him an orchestra. He had one when he was fourteen, and he wrote a lot. He became the greatest string composer in history because every Sunday they would give a concert of two hours of music that he composed that week.

The computer is something that can recreate that experience and a thousand others without having a rich father. We can transport ourselves today in a fashion that no king of ancient times could ever do, and we don't have to be a king. That's the difference.

Moreover, the computer allows you to get everything that is good about building a model plane, for example without having to spend 90% of your time worrying about the properties of balsa wood. What you don't want to automate is the interesting part of your pursuit. You want to automate the uninteresting part, the nonsense.

I don't think there is a writer on earth who would not prefer to use a word processor. It really doesn't get in the way of good writing and it takes care of a whole bunch of nonsense. In fact, almost all the work we did at PARC was to see whether people could build their own tools to automate the stupid parts of something they were interested in.

NPQ: Could you follow through this notion with the example of the model airplane?

KAY: You design the shape on your computer and it makes a sculpture of the thing. If you want to learn about the properties of balsa wood, then you shouldn't automate it. If you want to learn to improve the overall plane design, then you should use the computer.

One of the big myths about the Wright brothers is that they learned how to build planes by shoving them off cliffs until they got one that worked. Actually, the Wright brothers were the earliest users of wind tunnels. The computer is, in a sense, the ultimate wind tunnel for testing and experimentation.

NPQ: Along with Seymour Papert and Prof. Nicholas Negroponte from MIT, you helped establish the World Computer Center in Paris. One of the central aims of that effort was to adapt the use of the new information technologies to the needs of poor nations. What do you see as the potential of computers there?

KAY: Can we have an industrial revolution of the steel mill kind in the Third World? The answer is no. No amount of capital is going to bring the steel age to the Third World because filament winding techniques and everything else you can build out of plastics are stronger than steel. Seymour Papert's imagination said, "let's leapfrog the basic industries stage there because this is the Silicon Age." The earth is 8% silicon. It takes a lot of knowledge to build an ocean-going ship; anybody can learn how to program and assemble computer components.

NPQ: In what other ways can the information technologies improve conditions in poor nations?

KAY: I am particularly interested in what can be done without trying to Westernize the culture. The more cultural diversity, the more points of view we have access to, the better off we all are.

If we keep this in mind there are interesting problems we can work on, For example, the dominant industry in Ghana is weaving long strips of beautifully designed cloth which they use for clothing and ceremonies. The cloth strips are beautiful works of art.

There are different groups of people that do different parts of the weaving. The designers do very well at designing these strips of cloth. The weavers do very well at weaving. However, the setting up of the weavings on the looms is totally behind the times. As a result, the Ghanians are years behind the schedule on the production of these designs because going from a design to the way they set up a loom is a very tedious process.

Quite simply, you could design something on a computer screen for the various colors, and the computer could easily figure out the loom sets, eliminating the tedious, non-artistic aspect of the process. Of course, once we have the computer in the culture, then it can do many things.

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