Association of College & Research Libraries

Baltimore ’86

Energies for Transition” is the theme of ACRL’s Fourth National Conference, April 9-12, 1986, in Baltimore. On Wednesday, April 9, at 1:00 p.m., Alan C. Kay will make the first theme presenta- tion concerning his per- spective on technological changes, personal com- puting, and artificial in- telligence. He will utilize a variety of equipment, including laser disks, to generate and project messages illustrating his thoughts.

Alan C. Kay

The following background information has been supplied by Kay’s office at Apple Computer. “Father of the personal computer” is a title Alan C. Kay disclaims, but many acknowledge that it was Kay’s ideas which succeeded in getting industry’s attention for the personal computer.

Much of this attention resulted from work done at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) whose alumni are responsible for much of the current leading-edge computer technology. The Golden Age of PARC occurred between 1971 and 1976, when Xerox gave a blank check to a group of young and talented computer scientists in a creative think tank environment. It was here that Kay conceived of Dynabook, the powerful lap-sized personal computer of the 1980s that would allow people to draw and write anywhere. Dynabook was the inspiration for Alto, the forerunner of Macintosh. Another particularly celebrated contribution was Smalltalk, a very high-level object- oriented programming language used by non-programmers. He pioneered the use of icons instead of typed words for telling computers what to do next.

During his time at PARC, Kay encouraged children to visit and work with him, as he pledged never to design a personal computer that couldn’t be used by a child. He explains, “I think that since children appear to have to construct the world inside of their heads in order to become human beings, then people must be natural constructors. Computers are the best construction material that we have ever come up with outside our own brains.”

The son of a physiologist and artist/musician, Kay grew up in Australia, Massachusetts, and New York, eventually attending Brooklyn Technical High School. He received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics and molecular biology from the University of Colorado in 1966. He was a computer programmer during his Air Force years, then received his Ph.D. in 1969 from the University of Utah. He joined the artificial intelligence project at Stanford and in 1970 became a founding principal at PARC, where he remained for ten years. Since Xerox, he has worked at Atari and is presently with Apple Computer where he is an Apple Fellow, one of three select scientists who have an independent charter to pursue far out ideas for Apple’s future.

Beyond computers, music is Kay’s special passion. He has been a professional jazz musician, composer, and has built several musicial instruments. His sole professional membership is in the International Society of Organ Builders. Every summer he attends a music camp in New Hampshire, where he plays chamber music.

Kay dismisses concerns that artificial intelligence will somehow lead to the takeover of the world by computers (á la HAL in 2001). “Some people worry that artificial intelligence will make us feel inferior, but then, anybody in his right mind should have an inferiority complex every time he looks at a flower!”

A colleague asked, “What has Kay done directly for libraries?” Based upon reading a profile that appeared in Psychology Today in December 1983, a better question might be, “How can Kay stimulate the thinking of librarians about why they should want to use computers and bother to learn how to converse with them?” In that article, Kay dwells upon the desirability of having computer language that provides power, simplicity, and immediacy (i.e., a sense of control while maintaining the detail necessary for readability). In that conversation he talks in metaphors and analogies that ought to appeal even to those who are not yet computer literate: “I always tell people, if you want to learn about computers, write and produce plays… The computer is the most general of the kinetic arts.” (Psychology Today, December 1983, p.53.)—Bill Wilson.

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