Comparing Alan C Kay and Engelbart's future vision of Computing Artifacts


"A Personal Computer for Children of all ages" by Alan C Kay was a fictional account of a machine of the future written for the ACM National Conference 1972. "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework" is a report by Douglas C Engelbart on his vision for machines that increase human effectiveness. In this paper, we compare the abovementioned papers based on their philosophical views, frameworks presented, technical implication and intellectual implications.

Philosophical Perspectives

The conceptual framework put forward by Engelbart aims to increase the intellectual capability of humans to solve complex intricate problems of society. The capability mentioned in Engelbarts envisioned framework (and the artifact associated with it) is man's ability to comprehend better and faster. As every activity performed gains a global platform for execution, the urgency of finding solutions to complex problems becomes higher. The proposed system in his paper aims to augment the intellect by extending his mental, motor and sensory skills. If done right, such an augmentation of lower level skills can chain up to give coordinated greater benefits. The end goal of the study was to foster the need for doing research and development in the domain of intellect augmentation. Finding upper limits to effectiveness of human intellectual capabilities and developing new systems that can match those limits. The framework begins by stating our capability of processing information in two ways. One via conscious mediation and one via self-generated information. We comprehend situations by using a composition of basic cognitive abilities. But such capabilities can extend through 4 kinds of augmentations- Artifacts, Language, Methodology and Training. Artifacts are the physical objects we manipulate, Language are the tool we use to give form to concepts, Methodology are the procedures we use for problem solving and Training is the upskilling required for increasing our effectiveness. Because human beings comprehend and execute in small steps towards total fulfillment of problem domain, there exists a hierarchy for the processes we take for solving these complex problems. Engelbarts artifacts aim to cater to all these process hierarchies and perform a process in any level of this repertoire.

Alan Kay in his fictional envisioning portrays his artifact as a portable information manipulator. He hints at a near future fruition of the machine as its not far from the progressive reality of the time. Unlike Engelbart, Alan mentions about the issue with technological cures. They do not cure the source of the problem. With the perspective that everyone has a different model of any situation. There exists a need for technology to enable better understanding of the model of the situation. This is a parallel to Engelbarts view of comprehending complex situations. In pedagogical contexts, technology should be able to deliver qualities of a teacher who understands both his/her own model and child's model of any situation. The author like Engelbart believes learning augments through technological media. Like a child who is an actor of his surrounding and keeps learning from it continuously. There's a similarity in the viewpoints both authors carry about human learning process. We go from point A to B by understanding practical notions of the path. The Augmentation of Human Intellect Essay talks about multitasking capabilities of human as a higher order composition of basic skills. Similarly, Alan mentions that humans can benefit by keeping a lot of independent ideas in their heads at the same time. More so, if used for reflexive communication.


Engelbart states that intelligence runs through a hierarchy of processes. He believes intelligence attributes to the organization of knowledge and capabilities across these levels. What he describes as synergism. Where discrete processes handle their job in a coordinated fashion. The conceptualized system seeks out to amplify intelligence in a manner that someone augmenting their capability using the artifacts can perform better and faster than unaided people. This system is what he calls the H-LAMT systems. A two-domain system that comprises of the human process and the artifact processes. There's a flow of information, an interaction between the two processes where the man-artifact interface comes into place. H-LAMT intends to strengthen the individual processes and enable more synergy between the two. The framework draws its history from humans learning to develop capabilities to manipulate abstractions, concepts, symbols and externalizing those symbols and manipulating them. For the author, the conceptual framework favors the viewpoint that symbols and language help in evolving our cognitive capabilities. In this regard, they hypothesize that the manner in which humans use language and consecutively their intellectual ability is directly affected by their ability to manipulate external symbols effectively. Their artifacts and machines want to automate this external symbol manipulation.

Alan Kay in his essay doesn't mention a lot of any established framework but he mentions that if technologists want to create a box that works wonders. It should be for delivering attributes in a process that is not opaque to individual understanding of situations around us. Unlike Engelbart, his notion for human capabilities aren't as categorical. He believes an artifact like DynaBook can help augment the practical notions of getting from one level of a solution to another deeper comprehensive level of the same. He describes humans as actors rather than objects of our intellectual capabilities. Because they are constantly learning. He believes that by using a machine such as DB, we won't fear the process of acquiring a model of our situation. He specifically talks about teaching and learning which can use technology. While Engelbart focused on both the human and artifact components of this whole system. Alan mentions that it's the device which has a bigger role to play. It's as if our existing capabilities had nothing to do with our progress. Alan Kay fails to mention the evolutionary nature of learning. The multi layered process of pursuing higher intellect.

He later talks about Interactive learning, which can help us stay intrigued in conversations that are parallel to reality and question physical behaviours of objects. He mentions how DynaBook can connect to services like liblink and surface all past knowledge. This is a weaker argument in comparison to how Engelbart describes our evolutionary path to organize process hierarchies. The latter argued that our intellect depends on physical artifacts, our language, abstractions and our training. Alan also talks about humans being actors of our environment and how we keep changing our roles. A good environment for learning provides for avenues that allow us to change roles without reproach. This is something that Engelbart doesn't talk about when he mentions humans in his two-domain system. The way artifacts will evolve to accommodate for our intellectual limits, humans might find new limits as well.

Technical Description

Engelbart's hypothesized augmentation system had two screens placed horizontally on a flat surface, like an architect's drawing board. There were keys attached to both display frames on the side. There was also an always accessible light pen. The pen was in a natural resting position which allowed the user to reach it with less effort. Compared to this the DynaBook machine envisioned by Alan kay was a portable artifact weighing less than 3 pounds and had a display made out of phase transition liquid crystal. Compared to the augmentation system which didn't mention any power requirements, this required ½ watt power for running a 512 x 512 panel.

Engelbart goes into detail discussing the interaction mechanics of the device in repertoire hierarchical model. He begins with the composability of the symbols on the frame. Like assembling text was as easy as virtual text entry. There was no need to break lines as there was an automatic carriage return service. You could also lookup dictionary references and thesaurus functionality using the interface. The most powerful way of composition was using auto expansion of stored text abbreviations. DynaBook, was also capable of storing and editing text files. To enter text entry, you pressed on a thin pressure sensitive panel which emulated a key press using loudspeaker noises. The DynaBook could also link to the library services and retrieve information.

Talking about symbol manipulation, the augmentation system allowed easy light pen assisted deletion of words where the user would move the light pen in a stroke to delete a word. It even facilitated easy undoing of mistakes. This made the symbol manipulation far more powerful than a traditional paper pencil scratch pad. The interface also allowed for movement of words using two light pens and margin and line length alterations. There was also a proposed find and replace functionality. DynaBook didn't carry a lot of descriptive information about its interaction capabilities but it did mention that the book facilitated easy sharing of stored databases to other users and there was a filtration mechanism to aid in searching. There was also removal storage of one million characters that used in a strategic manner to reduce search latency. The language design for DB allowed for easy naming of objects and classes and retrieving them later by supplying their name. The objects were each individually controllable and the system allowed evaluation of any control path to show the messages passing between objects

Engelbarts system also allowed easy manipulation of conceptual networks. This was to support the knowledge discovery process used by humans, unstructured and not sequential. Engelbart called it the cut and try process. Drawing links between symbols would layout a node tree structure in the computer. This showed the logical flow from one statement to another. The DynaBook also allowed viewing topological information that helped aid in the operational model of knowledge discovery.

Both DynaBook and Augmentation system carried a symbol structuring notion. This meant that you could comment on the substructures and group symbols if possible. Processes could be either composited into a more higher-level process or broken down into more humanely manageable tasks. The DynaBook achieved this by maintaining state and logical attributes of every process. There was input, output and memory associated on the file system with every process on the system. If you composed these processes you could reuse it like the Augmentation system.


  1. Engelbart, D. C. (2001). Augmenting human intellect: a conceptual framework (1962). PACKER, Randall and JORDAN, Ken. Multimedia. From Wagner to Virtual Reality. New York: WW Norton & Company, 64-90.
  2. Alan C. Kay. 1972. A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages. Proceedings of the ACM national conference,