Alan Kay receives an honorary degree from the School of Informatics

[2017] Professor Alan Kay, a renowned American computer scientist has been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh.

Alan Kay

Kay earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics and molecular biology from University of Colorado, MS in Electrical Engineering and a Ph.D. in Computer Science from University of Utah.  After graduating from Utah, he became a researcher at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and developed programming languages. He began to think of a future with book-sized computers.

In 1971 Kay joined the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). He was was a visionary force in the development of tools that transformed computers into a new major communication medium. His credo was, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” One of his visionary concepts was the Dynabook, a powerful and portable electronic device the size of a three-ring notebook with a touch-sensitive liquid crystal screen and a keyboard for entering information. Kay is recognized for inventing ideas that became the future. Laptops, notebook computers, and tablets have roots in the early concepts of the Dynabook.

Kay also realized that computers could become a “metamedium”—that it could incorporate all other media. As a new medium, computers could have the same impact as the Gutenberg printing press. McLuhan’s ideas about the cultural impact of the printing press influenced Kay’s choice of the name “Dynabook,” because computers produce dynamic representations of information rather than static book pages.

Kay left Xerox PARC in the early 1980s to move to Los Angeles. In 1983, Kay worked for Atari for a year before joining Apple Computer. While at Apple, his research team developed Squeak, an open-source SmallTalk language. In 1997 Kay moved his team to Disney’s Imagineering division to continue his work on Squeak. Five years later, he established Viewpoints Research Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting educational media for children.

Kay also held the position of Senior Fellow at Hewlett-Packard until 2005. He has taught classes at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications program, the University of California, Los Angeles, the Kyoto University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 2003 he received the biggest honour in Computer Sciences Turing Award, for pioneering many of the ideas at the root of contemporary object-oriented programming languages, leading the team that developed Smalltalk, and for fundamental contributions to personal computing.

Alan Kay is considered by some as the “father of personal computers” because he envisioned a small computing system in the 1970’s, long before notebook computers were available. The One Laptop per Child program and the Children’s Machine have adopted his concepts about children and learning. His most important contribution to computer science is his commitment to turning the computer into a dynamic personal medium that supports creative thought. He continues to explore ways in which computers can be accessible to children.

Alan has played a crucial role in shaping software engineering; helped it reach beyond maths and technology and made it change the way we solve problems.

Professor Mirella Lapata
School of Informatics