Career Profile: Alan Kay, Viewpoint Research Institute

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Alan Kay calls all of the pioneering work he's done in the past four decades an extension of the puzzle he first set out to explore in his graduate thesis: the challenges and opportunities of personal computing. It's not the chips and code in PCs that fascinate Kay, though he has a masterful understanding of those. It's the potential for computers to amplify the finite human brain.

Slide Show: Alan Kay
"There's an analogy to the big change that the printing press made," Kay says.

As Gutenberg invented the tools and methods for turning words into a mass medium, the 66-year-old Kay and a stable of regular collaborators invented much of what we recognize as a modern PC. At Xerox's legendary Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1970s, Kay designed Smalltalk, the first object-oriented programming language; he helped create Alto, the prototype PC whose icons, windows and point-and-click interface catalyzed the Macintosh; and he participated in the early design of ARPANet, the precursor to the Internet.

While Kay's work helped fashion the tools that built the modern IT industry, his real passion is computing for children. That's the challenge that animates his work on such recent projects as "One Laptop Per Child," better known as the "$100 Laptop" initiative; and Squeak, a modern Smalltalk implementation aimed at giving kids a tool for creating their own media and models.

Why children? In kids, Kay sees the potential for the original, intuitive leaps that spark major advances. "Children don't know the way the world is supposed to be," he says. "In all of the revolutions, it was the children who did it—usually several generations of children."

Kay would like to see the world of computing shaken afresh by a few innovation cataclysms. He says he's taken aback by how routine it has become. "In the last 25 years we went from people thinking about all this stuff very carefully to people who are not thinking about it at all, just using existing goal structures," he says. "People digitize things: accounting systems, records, photos. People are occupying themselves with imitations of old media."

Colleagues say Kay's impatience is understandable. His mind is singularly restless, and his own talents span disciplines. "Alan is such a unique human being. I joke that I've been his grad student for 20 years," says Kim Rose, who co-founded the nonprofit Viewpoints Research Institute with Kay five years ago. "There's so much I've learned from him, whether it's basic properties of physics that I didn't understand properly as a student or strategies for working with corporate executives."

Computer science wasn't Kay's first vocation. Born to a family of musicians and raised listening to pipe organ repertoire such as Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," Kay worked as a professional jazz guitarist for a decade while acquiring his early education. His formal studies came in fits and starts. Kay enrolled in Bethany College in West Virginia but was expelled two years later for protesting college policies. The subject of his activism is a topic Kay avoids. "It's nothing I could prove today," he says, diplomatically nudging questions aside.

Out of school, Kay got drafted and enrolled in the Air Force. There, he learned to program. He also learned that he wanted to take another run at school. "The military can be very beneficial, even if you don't like it," Kay says dryly. "That and working on a farm when I was a teenager were two defining experiences of things I didn't want to do."

Kay returned to college, graduating from the University of Colorado with a B.S. in Mathematics and Molecular Biology in 1966. Not wanting to get a regular job, he applied for grad school. Geographic happenstance steered him to the University of Utah: Loving the mountains, Kay went to the library and cross-referenced Ph.D. programs with schools located above 4,000 feet.

The mountains may have drawn him to Utah, but the faculty and students there were pivotal in setting him down his lifelong research path. Kay cites Dave Evans, founder of the university's computer science program, as his mentor. "For my particular personality and unfinished nature, he was perfect," he says. "He treated his grad students like we were the best things that ever happened to the face of the earth, and only fools did things to bring down his estimation."

The research Kay began in Evans' department migrated to PARC, which Kay still regards as the most fertile crucible among the assortment of Silicon Valley institutions he's worked at and for—a list that includes stints at Atari, Apple, Disney and Hewlett-Packard. Last year, he moved full time to the Viewpoints Research Institute, an umbrella organization for the myriad of projects Kay and his collaborators are exploring. His goals there are as ambitious as his past achievements. One of its projects, recently funded by the National Science Foundation, is a new, lightweight programming language that will offer both a powerful environment for future programming experiments and serve as an instructional model for teaching its users about computing systems.

In his work, Kay synthesizes ideas from all the fields his curiosity steers him through. He remains a voracious reader and a dedicated musician whom friends describe as a virtuoso on the baroque pipe organ, although Kay claims he rarely performs. "A person who likes to read doesn't feel like they have to read aloud to enjoy it," Kay says. "The pipe organ stuff is very interior for me."

Organ builder Greg Harrold recalls the day Kay walked into his workshop to check out the organ Harrold was then building for the University of California at Berkeley. "He was curious to see an organ-builder in town," Harrold says. "Because I work alone, he volunteered to help. He did some iron forging—he'd never done it before. He got a farrier's forge and an anvil and forged the iron for the stop action."

That collaboration led to a commission for Harrold to build an organ for Kay's home, the largest private-residence instrument Harrold has created. The North Germanic-influenced organ now lives in the Los Angeles home Kay shares with his wife, Bonnie MacBird, an actor and writer whose authoring credits include the movie "Tron." Kay's influence extends to pop culture: MacBird and Kay met while she was researching "Tron," and she named the movie's Alan for him.

The numerous awards Kay has collected for his work include the Charles Stark Draper Prize bestowed by the National Academy of Engineering, the Alan. M. Turing Award from the Association of Computing Machinery, and the Kyoto Prize. His research has continued at a furious pace since the 1960s, but the man who famously remarked that "the best way to predict the future is to invent it" can't imagine he'll ever really retire from exploring the opportunities in computing.

"Picasso once said that a work of art is never finished, it's only abandoned," Kay says. "Anything that has to do with human thought and amplifying human thought and finding better ways to think is not something you'd expect to have closure on."


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