Alan Kay: “the computer revolution hasn’t happened yet”

Un breve biopic de Alan Kay, a través de su conferencia en la OOPSLA 1997 y una entrevista para la ACM.

Alan Kay es uno de los pioneros de la informática. Uno de los fundadores de XEROX PARC, ha llevado el premio Turing por sus contribuciones al mundo del software con las ideas detrás de la orientación a objetos implementadas en Smalltalk y en la última década está muy enfocado en sistemas que permitan la enseñanza (y creación) siguiendo métodos constructivistas (como el OLPC).

Os recomiendo que leáis esta entrevista A conversation with Alan Kay, y que veáis el video de su charla en OOPSLA (1997): The computer revolution hasn’t happened yet (transcripción).

Habla en su charla sobre cómo las ideas evolucionan y qué podemos aprender de eso a la hora de construir software: habla de diseño y evolución, de cómo los principios de la biología fueron fuente de inspiración para la orientación a objetos o de cómo la idea de encapsulación es la idea principal de todo diseño de software. Es un buen orador.

Aunque Kay es una fuente inagotable de ideas. En la charla encontraréis cosas como:

  • la apología de vivir arrebatados por el cambio, favoreciendo el florecimiento de nuevas ideas:

«If you had to pick one cause, of both particular difficulty in our field, and also a general difficulty in the human race, it’s taking single points of view and committing to them like they’re religions. This happened with Smalltalk. There’s a wonderful quote by Schopenhauer, a German philosopher of the nineteenth century, who said, “Every idea goes through three stages. First, it is denounced as the work of madmen.” […] and then later, it’s remarked as being totally obvious the whole time, and then the last stage is when the original denouncers claim to have invented it. [Laughter] That’s when it gets in its religious stage. To me, the most distressing thing that happened to Smalltalk when it came out of Xerox PARC, was, for many respects and purposes it quit changing. I can tell you, at Xerox PARC there are four major versions—completely different versions of the language—over about a ten year period, and many dozens and dozens of significant releases within those different versions. I think one of the things we liked the most about Smalltalk was not what it could do, but the fact that it was such a good vehicle for bootstrapping the next set of ideas we had about how to do systems building. That, for all intents and purposes—when Smalltalk went commercial—ceased.»

  • de la orientación a objetos:

«Most software today is very much like an Egyptian pyramid with millions of bricks piled on top of each other, with no structural integrity, but just done by brute force and thousands of slaves. […] I would compare the Smalltalk stuff that we did in the ’70s with something like a Gothic cathedral. We had two ideas, really. One of them we got from Lisp: late binding. The other one was the idea of objects. Those gave us something a little bit like the arch, so we were able to make complex, seemingly large structures out of very little material, but I wouldn’t put us much past the engineering of 1,000 years ago.»

  • o de cómo él cree que muchas ideas en el desarrollo de software todavía no han llegado a su potencial:

«For a Scientific American article 20 years ago, I came up with a facetious sunspot theory, just noting that there’s a major language or two every 10/12 years, and in between those periods are what you might call hybrid languages. These could be looked at as either an improvement on the old thing or almost a new thing. I chronicled Fortran as an improvement on an old thing or almost a new thing, and Algol and Lisp were the new thing.

Then there was Simula, which the designers thought of as an extension of Algol. It was basically a preprocessor to Algol the way C++ was a preprocessor for C. It was a great concept and I was lucky enough to see it as almost a new thing. Smalltalk and Prolog happened in the early 1970s. The predecessor of Prolog was a wonderful thing that Carl Hewitt did in the late 1960s called Planner.

Perhaps it was commercialization in the 1980s that killed off the next expected new thing. Our plan and our hope was that the next generation of kids would come along and do something better than Smalltalk around 1984 or so. We all thought that the next level of programming language would be much more strategic and even policy-oriented and would have much more knowledge about what it was trying to do. But a variety of different things conspired together, and that next generation actually didn’t show up. One could actually argue—as I sometimes do—that the success of commercial personal computing and operating systems has actually led to a considerable retrogression in many, many respects.

You could think of it as putting a low-pass filter on some of the good ideas from the ’60s and ’70s, as computing spread out much, much faster than educating unsophisticated people can happen. In the last 25 years or so, we actually got something like a pop culture, similar to what happened when television came on the scene and some of its inventors thought it would be a way of getting Shakespeare to the masses. But they forgot that you have to be more sophisticated and have more perspective to understand Shakespeare. What television was able to do was to capture people as they were.

So I think the lack of a real computer science today, and the lack of real software engineering today, is partly due to this pop culture.»

Actualización 16:00

Actualización 02/05

  • Este fin de semana he estado leyendo y viendo más material de Alan Kay. No os perdáis este texto: The early story of smalltalk. No sólo es un repaso a la historia del lenguaje y la metáfora de la orientación a objetos, sino también una panorámica colateral de algunas de las leyendas fundacionales de la informática y los ordenadores tal y como los conocemos.

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