Musings from the Chair
My friend, Ray Ozzie, the creator of Lotus Notes and now Microsoft’s chief architect, relates a wonderful story about his undergraduate experience, when he worked as part of the Plato1 project at the University of Illinois. Plato, you may recall, was an early computer-aided instruction (CAI) system that included touch-sensitive plasma displays (a precursor to today’s plasma televisions), computer-synthesized music, a chat system, message boards and email. A thriving electronic community grew up around Plato, which shaped the professional lives of many—more on that shortly.
As Ray tells the Plato story, he was partnered on a software development project with a Plato project staff member he’d never met. They kept different hours (Ray was an undergraduate with irregular hours, after all), but they interacted via Plato’s chat system. Unlike most of today’s chat systems, Plato didn’t buffer lines until a carriage return, but transmitted every character as it was typed.
Normally, the idiosyncrasies of a chat system would not have been an issue, but Ray’s software development partner was a terrible typist, “hunt and peck” with lots of spelling errors, backspaces, and shortened sentences. Despite the limited typing skills of Ray’s partner, he wrote some of the tightest and best-structured code Ray had ever seen. It was what any of us who has written software would call elegant, even beautiful. Ray was impressed.
Still, Ray struggled to reconcile the conundrum—amazingly poor typist but brilliant software architect. Later, Ray met the developer, stunned to see that he was quadriplegic and typed with a mouth tube. It was a transforming experience, the realization that computing was a powerful social tool that connects people mind-to-mind and enriches and empowers people to achieve their full potential.2 It is a lesson we would all do well to remember.
Ray, like others who worked on Plato, has often said that it was the defining experience of his life. As he put it, it was “… a peek at what the Internet would ultimately become. It was a microcosm; an online community in an era when there weren’t online communities.” It both showed him what computing could do and engaged him with collaborators whose shared mission was to accomplish something important, something astounding and transformative. This is the power of computing and what drew each of us to it, curious and excited.
I believe we are at a computing inflection point. Today, computing is the enabling technology of a knowledge world, from our information infrastructure to healthcare, finance, national defense and even entertainment. Yet we seem to be struggling to articulate a vision of the computing future, one where new and transformative ideas can flourish and engage a new generation of researchers. It’s time to dream big dreams – again.
As a transformative experience, Plato was not unique. Many, if not all of us, can tell stories of major projects that shaped a generation of researchers and created the foundations of modern computing. As we think about the Computing Community Consortium (CCC)’s call for visions and the importance of engaging undergraduates in research and educational experiences that shape their lives, remember Plato and projects like it. Let’s invent the future.
¹ University of Illinois Plato system, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PLATO_System
² “Speaking Mind to Mind,” The New York Times, December 1, 2002, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A01E3D91438F932A35751C1A9649C8B63
Dan Reed CRA’s Board Chair, is the Chancellor’s Eminent Professor and Senior Advisor for Strategy and Innovation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also directs the interdisciplinary Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI). Contact him at reed [at] renci.org