Black and White Program

Alan Kay’s Viewpoints

February 14th, 2008 by John Eastman

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Inventing Fundamental New Computing Technologies
This area, in no exaggerated terms, is Kay’s plan to reinvent how modern computer code is written. When personal computers became widespread in the late 70’s and early 80’s, hardware capabilities in terms of memory, storage, and processors were limited, and code for applications was slim lined. As technology

“The other method is by goal cloning, that is, to convince other people that they should work on our goals rather than theirs. Lewis Mumford wrote a good book about this process called The Myth of the Machine. When you want to build a pyramid, you have to have some tools, but you also have to find ways to convince 10,000 people or 100,000 people to work with you to get the thing done.”


Kay in Predicting The Future, Stanford Engineering, Vol. 1, No. 1, Autumn 1989

advanced and prices fell, hardware capacities increased and code became larger, more powerful and complicated, and with less of an emphasis on reduced instructions. As software companies like Microsoft progressed, their user base multiplied into millions and code continued to grow larger and more complex as multiple versions of applications sprouted and compatibility issues surfaced.Kay writes that “an excruciating example of an area that needs more than incremental improvements is programming, both in the large and in the small. Code is too: large, complex, costly, buggy, insecure, segregated, and inexpressive. We have plans to attempt a qualitative reinvention of programming and to start one of the subprojects this year: to make a practical working mathematical model of a complete personal computer system.
The ante has been raised in the 21st century, but most coding today is still done using techniques from the late sixties, with the usual result of millions of lines of complicated, problematic code.”

“Some years ago, Marvin Minsky said, ‘You don’t understand something until you understand it more than one way. ’ I think that what we’re going to have to learn is the notion that we have to have multiple points of view.”


Alan Kay in Predicting The Future, Stanford Engineering, Vol. 1, No. 1, Autumn 1989

Reinventing programming is no short order even for the inventor of some of the most successful computer languages and tools of the last 30 years.

It is notable that a large part of VRI’s funding is provided by Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Motorola, The National Science Foundation, and Sun Microsystems. Like many R&D firms, VRI typically filters its work into the organizations that fund it. For years, firms like Xerox and Bell Labs invented technologies that ended up in our daily lives, but were packaged by firms such as IBM, AT&T, Apple Computer, and HP. Through the OLPC XO laptop we are able to see Kay’s work on display. Look for more signs of his work to reveal itself in the near future.

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