Published: Nov. 11, 2019

Alan Kay speakingIt's difficult to overstate CU alumnus Alan Kay's influence on our modern digital landscape. Recruited to work at Xerox PARC the year it opened, he helped invent graphical user interfaces (GUIs), object-oriented programming and the first laptop. On November 11, after spending the day in ATLAS visiting labs and talking with faculty and students, Kay packed Cofrin Auditorium for a talk on polymaths and invention.

Kay referenced his own experience at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) helping to develop GUIs, which drew on knowledge from theater, visual arts, cognitive psychology, anthropology and linguistics, sports and music pedagogy, history, computer science and engineering. Similarly, the work he led on dynamic object-oriented programming and design drew from modern biology, pure mathematics, networking and systems theory, history, computer science and software engineering. 

In order to bring wonderful new ideas to light, practitioners must achieve high fluencies in all the disciplines they are trying to merge, says Kay.

As a PhD candidate in 1968, Kay conceived of a "personal, portable information manipulator," a digital learning device later termed the Dynabook. Though it was designed for children as a pedagogical tool, many point to it as a forerunner to the laptop. Inspiration for the device came after Kay met Seymour Papert in 1968 and learned of the Logo programming language, primarily developed for education which was a lifelong interest of Kay's.

In addition to being a visionary computer scientist, Kay is also an accomplished jazz musician and organist. At CU Boulder he studied mathematics and molecular biology. He was awarded the 2005 Turing Award—sometimes called the Nobel Prize of computer science, for his work on object-oriented programming—a software design approach used on almost all computational technology today. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Kyoto Prize, Japan's highest private award for global achievement given to "those who have contributed significantly to the scientific, cultural, and spiritual betterment of mankind."

Photo of Alan Kay talking to ATLAS students and facultyKay received a doctorate in computer science from the University of Utah in 1969, and in 1970, joined Xerox PARC where his first project focused on the first object-oriented programming language for educational applications. He contributed to the development of Ethernet, laser printing and client-server architecture. He left Xerox PARC in the early 1980s, becoming chief scientist at Atari where he worked on educational technology. In 1983 he became a fellow at Apple, where his work on graphical user-interfaces had contributed significantly to the success of the Mac OS. He was a fellow at the Walt Disney Company (1996–2001) and the Hewlett-Packard Company (2002–05). Kay served as Atari's Chief Scientist.

Kay's visit to ATLAS was at the invitation of Director Mark Gross, who was recruited by Kay in the early 1980s, along with other members of the MIT Logo group, to work at Atari's Cambridge Research Lab on computing environments for children. Kay's talk was part of the ATLAS Distinguished Speakers Series.