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 PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. PLATO, the brainchild of Illinois Professor Don Bitzer, was an early computer-aided instruction (CAI) system that included touch sensitive plasma displays (designed by Don and others and the precursor to today’s plasma televisions), computer-synthesized music, a chat system, message boards and email. A thriving electronic community grew around PLATO, which shaped the professional lives of many -- more on that shortly.
PLATO: The Illinois Experience
One of my favorite photographs from twenty years on the faculty at Illinois is this PLATO image. A young boy from the 1970s (notice the hair style) is listening to music, using a touch sensitive display and interacting with a rich set of electronic, multimedia lessons. All this was powered by a multi-million dollar CDC Cyber computing system. Beyond engaging children, PLATO delivered networked, interactive lessons to thousands of college students. It was still in active use when I arrived at Illinois in 1984.
Today, PLATO’s interactive education and multimedia capabilities are on everyday home computers and millions watch television on flat panel plasma and LCD displays, but all these things were nearly unimaginable in 1970. This is what vision and innovation are about – imaging a future where the extraordinary is commonplace, based on a compelling idea and exponential technology change.
Mind to Mind Engagement
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's Talkomatic didn’t buffer lines until a carriage return, but transmitted every character as it was typed. (I realize some of you under 30 may find it inconceivable that text-based electronic communication existed before PCs and the web, but it did, in many incarnations.)
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 by the unseen maven.
Still, Ray struggled to reconcile the conundrum – amazingly poor typist but brilliant software architect. Later, Ray met the developer and was stunned to see that he 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. It is a lesson we would all do well to remember.
I recently related this story to my former Illinois and now nearby NCSU colleague, Don Bitzer, and asked how he came to hire this developer. Don said he had described PLATO and its capabilities during an appearance on the Phil Donahue show (back when Phil was syndicated from Dayton, Ohio). Two days later, the future developer appeared at the Illinois Computer-Based Education Research Laboratory's (CERL) doorstep. He said that if Don really meant what he had said about computers helping those with physical challenges, he’d hire him. Don did -- on the spot – and a great relationship began.
Ray, like others who worked on PLATO, has often said that it was the defining experience of his life. Mind you, not the defining experience of his professional life, but the defining experience of his life. As Ray put it in a New York Times article, 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.”
PLATO Notes inspired Ray’s later creation of Lotus Notes and a host of other collaborative technologies. It also showed Ray what computing could do and engaged him with collaborators whose shared mission was to accomplish something important, something astounding and transformative. As Willa Cather once remarked, “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great." This is the power of computing and what drew each of us to it, curious and excited.
Inventing the Future
I believe we are at a computing inflection point. Today, computing is the critical, enabling technology of a knowledge world, from our information infrastructure to healthcare, finance, national defense, social discourse and even entertainment. Yet we in academia 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 for those of us in academia to dream big dreams – again.
As a transformative experience, PLATO was extraordinarily powerful but not unique. Many of us can tell stories of major projects that shaped a generation of researchers and created the foundations of modern computing. One need only remember Project MAC, the ARPANET and Andy van Dam’s hypertext system (HES), for example to know the power of vision and ideas, a topic on which I also wrote recently. As we think about the future of computing research and experiences that shape lives, remember PLATO and projects like it. Let’s invent the future.