Orig. Pub. by The Daily Riff October 2010
Genius is Seeing the Obvious Twenty Years Ahead
of Everyone Else
" . . Alan had foreseen a future where an individual should be able to
create simulations via interactive visual models on a computer screen.
This was his genius insight . . ."
Steve and I had worked closely enough together that I appreciated his methodology of creating end-to-end systems always beginning and ending with the user experience. But I was not qualified to be Apple's next product visionary. Alan Kay became my mentor, or as he liked to phrase it, like my Oxford Don whose responsibility it was to guide his students to all the good stuff. Alan told me Steve's genius was seeing what would become obvious to the rest of us twenty years later. I asked Alan whether there was any other way one could predict where technology might take us other than pure genius insight.
would become obvious to the rest of us twenty years later. . ."
Alan told me that every innovative technology, no matter how simple or how complex, always takes about fifteen to twenty years to evolve from concept to a commercial ready state. If this were true, then many of the technologies that would be important to Apple's future were already in some stage of percolating their way through this evolving process. Thus began a year of our visiting research laboratories, technical universities and many discussions between Alan, me and various Apple engineers where we tried to map out what might seem obvious to everybody in twenty years.
Previously, Alan had foreseen a future where an individual should be able to create simulations via interactive visual models on a computer screen. This was his genius insight that he conceptualized with Dynabook and Smalltalk, the first graphics-based programming language back in the early 1970s. Alan's innovations set the direction for personal computing as we know it today.
is why I still do what I do."
The best innovators are really at heart end-to-end systems designers. This perspective helps explain why several Asian consumer electronics firms have had so many missteps. They tend to focus on technology component invention, treating a product development effort as a set of discrete and very detailed tasks. In contrast, Alan Kay is an elegant systems designer seeing the most interesting problems to be solved as systemic challenges that have the potential to change how we fundamentally think about things. To use an often quoted Alan aphorism: Point of view is worth eighty IQ points.
The culmination of Alan and my year's investigation together was conceptualized in 1987 in what we called the Knowledge Navigator. While Moore's Law had already predicted that processing power in the next twenty years would be able to manipulate three-dimensional geometries in real time, the Knowledge Navigator envisioned a world of interactive multimedia communications where computation became just a commodity enabler and knowledge applications would be accessed by smart agents working over networks connected to massive amounts of digitized information.
In 1987, Apple also invested in a Cray XMP 48 super computer which enabled our engineers to experiment with what real time Alan told me that every innovative technology, no matter how simple or multidimensional objects on a screen would look and feel like many years before such computational power would be available on general purpose personal computers.
I was intrigued by Alan's certainty that the Knowledge Navigator was not a far-fetched idea. We asked: couldn't we use Hollywood special effects animation to simulate what the experience of the Knowledge Navigator would be like long before it was possible to build anything like it ?
Alan's wife, Bonnie MacBird, was the screenwriter on Disney's original Tron motion picture and we engaged her along with the Apple creative team of Hugh Dubberly and Doris Mitch to create a video simulation which would capture the experience of a professor at Berkeley using the Knowledge Navigator in the year 2009. To me, such an approach was not much different from the techniques we had used when we produced Pepsi Generation or the 1984 Macintosh TV commercials. In marketing , perception always leads reality.
remarked that great products like his Polaroid instant camera
aren't really invented by any of us;
they've always existed, right there in front of us,
invisible --- just waiting to be discovered. . . "
Knowledge Navigator was never intended to be a real product. In fact, it was a pretty controversial project with Apple's engineering community. Stanford University's engineering school even hosted a symposium where opposing sides debated whether the future of computing metaphorically should take the form of anthropomorphic agents or avatars as we showed in our Knowledge Navigator video; or should computing be more like a prosthesis as used by Sigourney Weaver in the film Aliens?
Alan saw the Knowledge Navigator as a credible vision of what would be obvious to the rest of us in the future : knowledge-rich collaboration and communication. I saw the Knowledge Navigator as a way to keep Apple in front of the world as a culture rich with innovation and creativity.
Alan and I took the Knowledge Navigator video everywhere. We got it on Soviet television as the focal point for a discussion between Russian scientists Andre Sakarov, Yevg yni Velikov and Rol Sagdiev about what the future for Russians would be like after the Berlin wall came down; Perestroika began and information between Russian citizens could flow freely. Knowledge Navigator was the subject of a cover of Fortune magazine, many technology publications around the world, television programs, and of world-class university and high-profile technology industry events.
Years later, I was having breakfast with Jonas Salk and John Perry Barlow. Dr. Salk, who unfortunately died shortly after we were together, said the world would soon enter into an evolutionary era far grander than anything Charles Darwin had investigated. This new era would comprise an accelerated evolution of our human species set off through extraordinary access to knowledge over immense networks with computers interacting directly with computers while enhancing the interactions between humans collaborating with humans. He called this the coming age of Wisdom. Others refer to this phenomenon as swarm theory intelligence, where a beehive becomes smarter than any individual bee.
Today, the enthusiasm and self-confident assurance of the future ahead from visionaries like Steve Jobs, Alan Kay and Jonas Salk seems obvious.
I recall an afternoon when Steve Jobs and I went to visit Dr. Land, founder of Polaroid, who had been pushed out of the company he founded and had moved to a laboratory on the Charles River in Cambridge. As we sat together around a large conference table Dr. Land remarked that great products like his Polaroid instant camera aren't really invented by any of us; they've always existed, right there in front of us, invisible --- just waiting to be discovered.
Steve Jobs immediately connected with Dr. Land's observation, saying the reason he never did consumer research when he built a new product is he trusted his own instincts more than others who couldn't see what he saw. Steve agreed with Dr. Land's point of view saying he felt that the Mac too had always existed; invisible to the rest of us, just waiting for Steve to come along and reveal it.
Towards my last days at Apple, I related this story to Alan Kay and he broke into a broad smile and said, "Of course that's the way it is."
Fast-forward to twenty years later.
The following is an e-mail to me from my son Jack Sculley, now a physicist and an environmental scientist, whom I had asked to read a draft of this chapter. Our original Knowledge Navigator video had a visual simulation showing a correlation between extensive tree clearing in the Amazon rain forest and a predicted expansion of the Sahara desert. Twenty years ago, Alan Kay was confident that simulations like this would become obvious in the future.
Thanks for the chapter - I've always thought this was one of the coolest projects you worked on! Interestingly enough, I just had an experience with a Mac that in broad outlines matches Alan Kay's predictions for a Berkeley professor in 2009.
Inez Fung, a preeminent atmospheric physicist who is one of my mentors at Berkeley, and I were trying to tackle the problem of what climate change would do to food webs at the nexus of rivers and oceans. We pulled up a NASA agent called Giovanni and requested a time series of data from a satellite called "SeaWifs" for the California coast from Cape Mendocino up to the Eel River mouth. Formerly this would have involved lines and lines of code to FTP ASCII files from a server and read them into a visualization program. Here we just drew a box over the area of interest, clicked the start and end times, and the Giovanni agent did the rest. While we didn't have voice interaction, it wasn't necessary, we had the graphical tools to quickly select the data and Giovanni had the AI to get us a presentation quality chart in about 5 seconds. Then I downloaded the data onto my MacBook Pro and pulled up a MATLAB program I had written collaboratively with people at MIT that simulates a marine plankton food web and compared the actual satellite observations with what a planktonic web would do if it were supplied nutrients from upwelling vs. river discharge to see which model matched the data. As it turns out, they both do, with blooms in summer showing an upwelling signature and blooms in winter showing a river signature. Not the Amazon rainforest in your film but planktonic food webs are probably even more important as planetary "lungs."
As Inez pointed out, to do this in her office at MIT 20 years ago would have taken months of arduous coding. At Berkeley in 2009 it took us ten minutes. My next step is to simulate what will happen to upwelling and river discharge under different climate change scenarios. We hope to publish the results in a scientific journal next year once we cross- check the data with my submarine cores.
Thought you would be pleased to see your and Alan's predictions come true almost to the letter and day ! The chapter reads very well and I hope you expand it with more details of your fascinating interactions with Alan, Dr. Land, Sagdiev, Salk and Barlow.
John Sculley was CEO of Apple Computer from 1983 to 1993. Since Apple he has been involved with a number of private companies. Each of these has involved technology-enabled, end-to-end platform services, in industries poised for major transformation. John also mentors serial entrepreneur CEOs in areas including home energy management, home testing for sleep apnea, and post-secondary school education. John says, "Alan's insight that - POV is worth eighty IQ points - is why I still do what I do."
Related posts by The Daily Riff:
College Drop-Out Steve Jobs' Commencement Speech
Quincy Jones: A three-sixty human being (and tribute to Alan Kay)
Life as a Learning Lab