I have transcribed a section of Alan Kay's recent presentation marking "40 years anniversary of the dynabook" because I see it as an important contribution to ongoing discussions about the significance and prospects for the XO, or OLPC
Alan Kay visited Seymour Papert in 1968
49 minutes: Slide that involves Alan Kay
About 40 years ago I went to visit Seymour Papert... because I had started to visit people who could be users of a desktop computer ... and Seymour was working with children ... Seymour was a mathematician who had worked with Piaget ... (talks about Seymour's tragic accident from which he has not recovered) ...
Kay's interpretation of Seymour's work: Children are egocentric in a charming way ...they do everything relative to them ... so if they were a co-ordinate system they would be an inertial co-ordinate system ... and an inertial co-ordinate system is the differential geometry of Gauss ... and if you keep track of this in the right way you get the differential geometry of vectors ... and a child is one of those vectors... and so is the turtle ... and he thought, boy(!), this is so close to the way children think already I wonder what would happen if we put some formalism on it and treat it as mathematics
So ask a little kid to draw a circle with their body and ask them what they are doing ... they say they are going a little and then turning a little, over and over
In logo: repeat 360 [forward 1 right 1]
Tell the turtle to do that ... and by golly you get a circle and you can put in different values to get circles of different sizes ... and so we have a differential equation here which is infinitely simpler than (traditional) differential geometry and which can be understood by a young child
This completely blew my mind! Once you've got something which is incredibly powerful that a child can learn you've no longer got an adult tool ... you've actually got something like a printing press that is one of the great 500 year inventions in human history
If children can learn these powerful ideas then you have a chance to not just increment on what is already known ... they will actually help over several generations to invent something new
So, that combined with just seeing this flat panel display with all these wise words of McLuhans in my mind (mentioned earlier in talk) on the plane back to Utah after meeting Seymour I drew this little cartoon with kids out in the grass ...
... because if you are going to make a personal computer for kids don't put it on a desk ... that isn't them ... so I immediately took the fun idea of a flat screen computer and made it paramount ... you had to make a computer that was in every way made for a child, that they could take away from adults and learn by themselves ... it would have to have wireless, a stylus, a touch screen, a keyboard (because even perfect character recognition is not fast enough to do bulk typing), removable memory ... and so all of those things coalesced ....
(describes how he made the model from a cardboard box)
Alan Kay's definition of portability ... that you can carry something else as well as the portable device ... arrived at the figure of two pounds (which is roughly 1kg)
(some information about head mounted display and a wrist detector by Negroponte left out here)
If you think about this as a service idea then what are the actual services ... (stuff snipped) ...
"IT'S NOT THE TECHNOLOGY, STUPID"
You really have to have some idea of the end users ... leads into new slide
It's a service idea with serious goals about education, especially self education
Kept (?) standards: Fluency in powerful ideas for > 90% of children
powerful ideas and how to learn them ...
... and with the aid of computing media
[[Alan refers to these, here and later, as "four ideas", which I understand to be:
- What are powerful ideas?
- How can they be learned with the aid of computing media?
- Can this work with human mentors?
- Can it work with computing mentors?]]
I was interested in whether we could make computer mentors because my confidence in adults was very low back then ... and still is. The biggest bottleneck to education reform is the adults that are in the system
In the Third World it is the lack of adults ... But in our world it's almost the lack of adults ... almost no elementary school teachers understand anything about maths and science ... in a way things might be almost better if they weren't there because the children would not be getting misinformation about it
It has to be setup to succeed for 90% of the children, not just the 10% who are naturally good at it
The problem with technologists doing it is that we are all setup by nature to be good at it ... all of us here learnt to program within a weeek ... I'll bet you anything ... it's not that hard if you almost know what it is ... but if you don't almost know what it is, it can be really daunting
This is why computing people generally design terrible computing user interfaces ... they're not only willing to cope with something bad, they are pleased to ... because it's a little challenge for them ....
(this section finished at 1 hr 1 min)
At 1hr 15min the moderator asks:
"Why was the dynabook never built in spite of all these people trying to make it happen?"Alan recapitulates the four ideas outlined above ... then ...
Working on the first two with our 90% success threshold ... led to 25 years of failure ... we were paying for this research ourselves ... nobody would fund the children's research because we did these long projects ... we didn't believe in most forms of testing that are reported in the education literature ... so we wanted to convince ourselves that the children were getting fluent and that 90% of them were getting fluent ... by those sorts of criteria it was one failure after another .... but after each failure we would learn something
And about 10 years ago one of the systems that we did started teaching many more children with adult help in a much stronger way (I think he means etoys) ... so I think after 40 years the first two ideas and a little bit of what sort of human mentoring you need have been solved ...
BUT, when Nicholas started up the OLPC project my heart sank, even as I supported it ... because if it's tough to get good mentors in the USA then it's really tough out in the Third World ... no user interace today can find out who its user is, what its user knows, what it can do ... it can't find out what level of reading the user can do and help find out the next level of reading
There is common sense in the world concept ... so we make a world populated with objects ... but they didn't interfere with the user strongly
That isn't enough ... pure discovery learning took us 100,000 years to get to science ... so you need learning that is facilitated ... and if you can't make thousands of good teachers in a year then you have to have an interactive user interface to save yourself
This dream of having a UI to facilitate is as old as AI ... it is AI ... if we had this we could make up for no teachers and bad teachers (but we still need good teachers) ... so when the OLPC project started I thought OMG, we are lacking the one piece of the technology ... if we could just ship that machine with a program that could teach children to read in their native language ... that would be the killer app and we wouldn't have to worry about anything else for a number of years ... but that technology doesn't exist ... it is that gap which has to be bridged in order to fulfil the educational goals that the dynabook has ... you have to have a way to get around the adults in the system that make educational reform difficult