Alan Curtis Kay
May 17, 1940
|Education||University of Colorado at Boulder (B.S., 1966)|
University of Utah College of Engineering (M.S., 1968; Ph.D., 1969)
Graphical user interface
|Awards||ACM Turing Award (2003)|
Charles Stark Draper Prize
Apple Inc. ATG
Walt Disney Imagineering
Viewpoints Research Institute
|Thesis||FLEX: A Flexible Extendable Language (1968)|
|Doctoral advisors||David C. Evans|
Robert S. Barton
|Notable students||David Canfield Smith|
Alan Curtis Kay (born May 17, 1940) is an American computer scientist best known for his pioneering work on object-oriented programming and windowing graphical user interface (GUI) design. At Xerox PARC he led the design and development of the first modern windowed computer desktop interface. There he also led the development of the influential object-oriented programming language Smalltalk, both personally designing most of the early versions of the language and coining the term "object-oriented." He has been elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society of Arts. He received the Turing award in 2003.
Kay is also a former professional jazz guitarist, composer, and theatrical designer. He also is an amateur classical pipe organist.
In an interview on education in America with the Davis Group Ltd., Kay said:
I had the misfortune or the fortune to learn how to read fluently starting about the age of three, so I had read maybe 150 books by the time I hit first grade, and I already knew the teachers were lying to me.
Originally from Springfield, Massachusetts, Kay's family relocated several times due to his father's career in physiology before ultimately settling in the New York metropolitan area when he was nine.
He attended Brooklyn Technical High School. Having accumulated enough credits to graduate, he then attended Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia, where he majored in biology and minored in mathematics.
Kay then taught guitar in Denver, Colorado for a year and hastily enlisted in the United States Air Force when the local draft board inquired about his nonstudent status. After taking an aptitude test, he was made a computer programmer, a billet usually filled by women due to its secretarial connotations at the time. There he devised an early cross-platform file transfer system.
After his discharge, he enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder and earned a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in mathematics and molecular biology in 1966.
In the autumn of 1966, he began graduate school at the University of Utah College of Engineering. He earned a Master of Science in electrical engineering in 1968, then a Doctor of Philosophy in computer science in 1969. His doctoral dissertation, FLEX: A Flexible Extendable Language, described the invention of a computer language named FLEX. While there, he worked with "fathers of computer graphics" David C. Evans (who had recently been recruited from the University of California, Berkeley to start Utah's computer science department) and Ivan Sutherland (best known for writing such pioneering programs as Sketchpad). Their mentorship greatly inspired Kay's evolving views on objects and computer programming. As he grew busier with research for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), he ended his musical career.
In 1968, he met Seymour Papert and learned of the programming language Logo, a dialect of Lisp optimized for educational purposes. This led him to learn of the work of Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Lev Vygotsky, and of constructionist learning, further influencing his professional orientation.
Leaving Utah as an associate professor of computer science in 1969, Kay became a visiting researcher at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in anticipation of accepting a professorship at Carnegie Mellon University. Instead, in 1970, he joined the Xerox PARC research staff in Palo Alto, California. Through the decade, he developed prototypes of networked workstations using the programming language Smalltalk.
Along with some colleagues at PARC, Kay is one of the fathers of the idea of object-oriented programming (OOP), which he named. Some original object-oriented concepts, including the use of the words 'object' and 'class', had been developed for Simula 67 at the Norwegian Computing Center. Kay said:
I'm sorry that I long ago coined the term "objects" for this topic because it gets many people to focus on the lesser idea. The big idea is "messaging".
While at PARC, Kay conceived the Dynabook concept, a key progenitor of laptop and tablet computers and the e-book. He is also the architect of the modern overlapping windowing graphical user interface (GUI). Because the Dynabook was conceived as an educational platform, he is considered one of the first researchers into mobile learning; many features of the Dynabook concept have been adopted in the design of the One Laptop Per Child educational platform, with which Kay is actively involved.
From 1981 to 1984, Kay was Chief Scientist at Atari. In 1984, he became an Apple Fellow. After the closure of the Apple Advanced Technology Group in 1997, he was recruited by his friend Bran Ferren, head of research and development at Disney, to join Walt Disney Imagineering as a Disney Fellow. He remained there until Ferren left to start Applied Minds Inc with Imagineer Danny Hillis, leading to the cessation of the Fellows program.
In 2001, Kay founded Viewpoints Research Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to children, learning, and advanced software development. For their first ten years, Kay and his Viewpoints group were based at Applied Minds in Glendale, California, where he and Ferren worked on various projects. Kay served as president of the Institute until its closure in 2018.
In 2002 Kay joined HP Labs as a senior fellow, departing when HP disbanded the Advanced Software Research Team on July 20, 2005. He has been an adjunct professor of computer science at the University of California, Los Angeles, a visiting professor at Kyoto University, and an adjunct professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Kay served on the advisory board of TTI/Vanguard.
In December 1995, while still at Apple, Kay collaborated with many others to start the open source Squeak version of Smalltalk. As part of this effort, in November 1996, his team began research on what became the Etoys system. More recently he started, with David A. Smith, David P. Reed, Andreas Raab, Rick McGeer, Julian Lombardi, and Mark McCahill, the Croquet Project, an open-source networked 2D and 3D environment for collaborative work.
In 2001, it became clear that the Etoy architecture in Squeak had reached its limits in what the Morphic interface infrastructure could do. Andreas Raab, a researcher in Kay's group then at Hewlett-Packard, proposed defining a "script process" and providing a default scheduling mechanism that avoided several more general problems. The result was a new user interface, proposed to replace the Squeak Morphic user interface. Tweak added mechanisms of islands, asynchronous messaging, players and costumes, language extensions, projects, and tile scripting. Its underlying object system is class-based, but to users (during programming) it acts as if it were prototype-based. Tweak objects are created and run in Tweak project windows.
In November 2005, at the World Summit on the Information Society, the MIT research laboratories unveiled a new laptop computer for educational use around the world. It has many names, including the $100 Laptop, the One Laptop per Child program, the Children's Machine, and the XO-1. The program was founded and is sustained by Kay's friend Nicholas Negroponte, and is based on Kay's Dynabook ideal. Kay is a prominent co-developer of the computer, focusing on its educational software using Squeak and Etoys.
Kay has lectured extensively on the idea that the computer revolution is very new, and all of the good ideas have not been universally implemented. His lectures at the OOPSLA 1997 conference, and his ACM Turing Award talk, "The Computer Revolution Hasn't Happened Yet", were informed by his experiences with Sketchpad, Simula, Smalltalk, and the bloated code of commercial software.
On August 31, 2006, Kay's proposal to the United States National Science Foundation (NSF) was granted, funding Viewpoints Research Institute for several years. The proposal title was "STEPS Toward the Reinvention of Programming: A compact and Practical Model of Personal Computing as a Self-exploratorium". A sense of what Kay is trying to do comes from this quote, from the abstract of a seminar at Intel Research Labs, Berkeley: "The conglomeration of commercial and most open source software consumes in the neighborhood of several hundreds of millions of lines of code these days. We wonder: how small could be an understandable practical 'Model T' design that covers this functionality? 1M lines of code? 200K LOC? 100K LOC? 20K LOC?"
Kay has received many awards and honors, including:
His other honors include the J-D Warnier Prix d'Informatique, the ACM Systems Software Award, the NEC Computers & Communication Foundation Prize, the Funai Foundation Prize, the Lewis Branscomb Technology Award, and the ACM SIGCSE Award for Outstanding Contributions to Computer Science Education.