Monday, 30 January 2012

Dynabook, forty years on

At some point last week I remembered Alan Kay's celebrated phrase "the best way to predict the future is to invent it". So this morning I've been thinking about the Dynabook, the way in which Alan Kay went about inventing the future, and reading his original paper on the subject, A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages, published in 1972. It fizzes with originality. Even today it feels fresh and lively - in 1972 it was something quite extraordinary. It is nothing less than a full-fledged vision for the devices we have today.

Kay was working at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in the early 70s, in the extraordinary time when that centre invented most of the computing technologies we rely on today - windowing systems, the graphical user interface, bitmapped displays, laser printers, local networking and so on. Kay was one of the originators of object-oriented programming and invented the Smalltalk language with which software on many of the Xerox computers was built. 

So Kay's article was informed by the absolute cutting edge of technology. He envisions a small portable computer, the size of a notebook (12" by 9", 30cm by 22cm), weighing no more than 4lb (1.8 kg), with plenty of onboard storage, a print-quality LCD screen, and a keyboard that could either be part of the hardware or virtual. The device would allow the user to read documents, and have ready networked access to libraries for downloading books. It would be cheap enough and easy enough to use that most people (adults and children) would have their own device and take it everywhere with them. In other words, it's what we have today in our tablet computers and small laptops, and various articles have been written comparing the Dynabook concept to the Apple iPad or to netbooks

The differences are interesting, however. Kay's driver in the article is not really technology, but education. He begins by bemoaning the poor use of technology within education, observing that most educational machines have not worked well, and saying that his goal in the article is to "discuss some aspects of the learning process which we feel can be augmented through technological media". He then progresses to have a case study of two nine-year old children using their Dynabooks to play a video game. It doesn't do what they want, so they revise it on the spot - because it turns out that the Dynabook is not just a passive device but can be programmed at will. The children research the physics of the game using the library function and then reprogram it so that it works more realistically. 

Kay proceeds to introduce a considerable amount of learning theory - Montessori, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Seymour Papert - and argues that "computers are an almost ideal medium for the expression of a children's epistemology". Only then does he introduce the hardware design that has proved so influential. In passing, he discusses issues like copyright and advertising on such devices. But it is clear that his goal is education - he argues near the end that "We do feel that the pedagogical merits of teaching algorithmic thinking, having easy editing etc. (all wrapped up in an environment which can go anywhere and can belong to anybody), are undeniable."

He admits near the end of the article that a certain amount of it is "speculation and fantasy", but he knew well that most of what he envisaged was either technologically possible in 1972 or would become so over the next few years. In that respect, it's amazing it took us so long. The tech community has long taken the Dynabook as a template, of course. I well remember as an undergraduate in Cambridge, c1990, being told by some computing entrepreneur (I forget who) that the Dynabook had not been possible until that moment, but now he was going to produce it. And every time a portable device arrives it's compared to the Dynabook at some point. But it really does feel like we have the hardware in place now. 

So did Alan Kay invent the future? Well, yes and no. Tablets and netbooks are certainly (fairly) cheap, very widespread (at least in rich countries), portable and easy to use. But what's very clearly missing is the active element, especially regarding programming. Tablets are used to surf the net, check and reply to emails and social media, watch video, listen to music, read books and magazines. Netbooks do many of the these things too - the reading and watching not quite so well, but with better keyboards they work better to create and edit documents. But both these device categories are passive in terms of the computing environment - you take things you're given. Apps for iPads and Android tablets aren't created on the tablets but on 'proper' computers with bigger screens and full keyboards. And while children might research their homework using a tablet, they're unlikely to be recreating a physical environment on one from scratch. 

The Dynabook was, and is, a revolutionary concept. But it's a revolution that's still unfinished.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Enveloping, the Singularity and conspiracy theories

Just back from a very interesting talk by Luciano Floridi, prof of the philosophy of information at the University of Hertfordshire. He was unable to come to our workshop The Difference That Makes a Difference 2011, but David Chapman and I have been reading his work quite a bit, so it was good to get to meet him. Luciano's title was "Enveloping the World: Understanding the Constraining Success of Smart Technologies", and he mostly talked about the interaction between technologies, especially those which might be seen as smart or even artificially intelligent, and their environment. He used the very helpful concept of enveloping from robotics, where a technology is situated within a constraining environment which has been tailored to make the robot work most efficiently; and he argued that the world as a whole has become tailored to enable us to interact smoothly with our supposedly smart technologies

One of the questions Luciano was asked afterwards concerned the 'Singularity' - Ray Kurzweil's theory that  ICTs are becoming progressively more 'intelligent', taken as a whole (i.e. if you look at the whole network) and that at some point in the future, they will pass a point where they reach real intelligence, and surpass that of humanity - whereupon they'll be in charge and there will be no turning back. It sounds like science fiction, but surprisingly large numbers of people in the tech community, especially in Silicon Valley, believe some version of it. It's essentially a secular form of millenarianism or the Rapture - the idea that Christ will return in glory, will judge the righteous and the unrighteous, and take the righteous with him to heaven. 

Personally I think it's bunkum. But as with the Rapture (which I also think is bunkum) it could potentially be dangerous bunkum, if believed by enough people and built into their worldviews. From time to time, American presidential candidates arise who are said to believe that the battle of Armageddon really will take place on the plains of Meggido - in modern-day Israel - and thereafter Christ will return, and that it's their job to help bring that about. Electing someone to high office who really believed that and really acted to make it happen is a pretty grim scenario. Likewise, if people designing the technologies through which so many people live their lives really believe they're working towards a complete transformation of the world into one led by AI, then they may act in ways to bring that out, which could be more hostile to humanity than the fairly benign process of mutual adaptation that Luciano described.

But it leaves with the question as to why people believe these things. I listened this morning to a podcast of Thinking Allowed, where Jovan Byford (from Social Sciences here at the OU) discussed his new book Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction. The presenter, Laurie Taylor, observed that many people in the States actually preferred to believe that J.F. Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA instead of by a madman, because it fitted better with their worldview of stability and control. Likewise, I wonder whether the Singularity gets its believers because it fits with the worldview that technology changes everything, and all humans can do is respond. 

Technology changes society, and society changes technology. But over time, they both change fundamental ideas, and these ideas in turn change both society and technology. The Singularity is not a fundamental idea in that sense, but enough people believe it to be so, it might change our technologies in way that really do change society.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Mission and discipleship

Good quote here from a book entitled Untamed: reactivating a missional form of discipleship by Alan and Deborah Hirsch (Baker Books, 2010, p.29), quoted by the ever readable Kurt Willems:
You simply cannot be a disciple without being a missionary – a sent one. For way too long discipleship has been limited to issues relating to our own personal morality and worked out in the context of the four walls of the church with its privatized religion. In doing this, we have severely neglected our biblical mandate to go and “make disciples.” We have narrowed the gospel message to just being about us. Please hear us: we don’t want to neglect issues of personal morality. To strive for holiness and maturity in our own personal lives is extremely important, but it is only half the picture; the other half is our God-given responsibility to the world around us. The fact is that you can’t be a disciple without being a missionary: no mission, no discipleship. It’s as simple as that.
As some of the comment on Kurt's blog makes clear, 'mission' here refers to action in the world of all sorts, not (just) evangelism. It fits well with so many things I've been thinking about recently, but especially the hymn The Summons by John Bell and Graham Maule that we sang at our church on Sunday, which begins:
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don't know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?