If you’re entering computer science, please look at this

This presentation by Bret Victor could alternately be called “Back To The Future,” but he called it, “The Future of Programming.” What’s striking is this is still a possible future for programming, though it was all really conceivable back in 1973, the time period in which Bret set it.

I found this video through Mark Guzdial. It is the best presentation on programming and computing I’ve seen since I’ve watched what Alan Kay has had to say on the subject. Bret did a “time machine” performance set in 1973 on what was accomplished by some great engineers working on computers in the 1960s and ’70s, and generally what those accomplishments meant to computing. I’ve covered some of this history in my post “A history lesson in government R&D, Part 2,” though I de-emphasized the programming aspect.

Bret posed as someone who was presenting new information in 1973 (complete with faux overhead projector), and someone who tried to predict what the future of programming and computing would be like, given these accomplishments, and reasoning about the future, if what was then-current thinking progressed.

The main theme, which has been a bit of a revelation to me recently, is this idea of programming being an exercise in telling the computer what you want, and having the computer figure out how to deliver it, and even computers figuring out how to get what they need from each other, without the programmer having to spell out how to do these things step by step. What Bret’s presentation suggested to me is that one approach to doing this is having a library of “solvers,” operating under a set of principles (or perhaps a single principle), that the computing system can invoke at any time, in a number of combinations, in an attempt to accomplish that goal; that operational parameters are not fixed, but relatively fluid.

Alan Kay talked about Licklider’s idea of “communicating with aliens,” and how this relates to computing, in this presentation he gave at SRII a couple years ago. A “feature” of many of Alan’s videos is that you don’t get to see the slides he’s showing…which can make it difficult to follow what he’s talking about. So I’ll provide a couple reference points. At about 17 minutes in “this guy” he’s talking about is Licklider, and a paper he wrote called “Man-Computer Symbiosis.” At about 44 minutes in I believe Alan is talking about the Smalltalk programming environment.

http://vimeo.com/22463791

I happened to find this from “The Dream Machine,” by M. Mitchell Waldrop, as well, sourced from an article written by J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Taylor called, “The Computer as a Communication Device,” in a publication called “Science & Technology” in 1968, also reprinted in “In Memoriam: J.C.R. Licklider, 1915-1990,” published in Digital Systems Research Center Reports, vol. 61, 1990:

“Modeling, we believe, is basic and central to communications.” Conversely, he and Taylor continued, “[a successful communication] we now define concisely as ‘cooperative modeling’–cooperation in the construction, maintenance, and use of a model. [Indeed], when people communicate face to face, they externalize their models so they can be sure they are talking about the same thing. Even such a simple externalized model as a flow diagram or an outline–because it can be seen by all the communicators–serves as a focus for discussion. It changes the nature of communication: When communicators have no such common framework, they merely make speeches at each other; but when they have a manipulable model before them, they utter a few words, point, sketch, nod, or object.”

I remember many years ago hearing Alan Kay say that what’s happened in computing since the 1970s “has not been that exciting.” Bret Victor ably justified that sentiment. What he got across (to me, anyway) was a sense of tragedy that the thinking of the time did not propagate and progress from there. Academic computer science, and the computer industry acted as if this knowledge barely existed. The greater potential tragedy Bret expressed was, “What if this knowledge was forgotten?”

The very end of Bret’s presentation made me think of Bob Barton, a man that Alan has sometimes referred to when talking about this subject. Barton was someone who Alan seemed very grateful to have met as a graduate student, because he disabused the computer science students at the University of Utah in their notions of what computing was. Alan said that Barton freed their minds on the subject, which opened up a world of possibilities that they could not previously see. In a way Bret tried to do the same thing by leaving the ending of his presentation open-ended. He did not say that meta-programming “is the future,” just one really interesting idea that was developed decades ago. Many people in the field think they know what computing and programming are, but these are still unanswered questions. I’d add to that message that what’s needed is a spirit of adventure and exploration. Like our predecessors, we’ll find some really interesting answers along the way which will be picked up by others and incorporated into the devices the public uses, as happened before.

I hope that students just entering computer science will see this and carry the ideas from it with them as they go through their academic program. What Bret presents is a perspective on computer science that is not shared by much of academic CS today, but if CS is to be revitalized one thing it needs to do is “get” what this perspective means, and why it has value. I believe it is the perspective of a real computer scientist.

Related posts:

Does computer science have a future?

The necessary ingredients for computer science

—Mark Miller, https://tekkie.wordpress.com

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