The Knowledge Navigator

Two of this week’s milestones in the history of technology—the development of the first transistor at Bell Labs and the development of the Alto PC at Xerox PARC—connect to this year’s 30th anniversary of the Knowledge Navigator, a concept video about the future of computing used as a motivational tool by John Sculley, Apple’s CEO at the time.

“I wanted to inspire people, convince them that we were not at the end of creativity in computing, only at the very beginning of the journey,” Sculley told me earlier this year. Given Moore’s Law, Sculley’s said they were confident in 1987 that in the future they will be able to do multimedia, build communications into computers, perform simulations, and develop computers that will act as an intelligent assistant. The question was “how to present it to people so they will believe it will happen,” and the answer was a “concept video.”

The fundamental innovation that enabled what became to be known as “Moore’s Law” was demonstrated seventy years ago this week, on December 23, 1947. The plaque commemorating the invention of the first transistor at Bell Telephone Laboratories reads: “At this site, in Building 1, Room 1E455, from 17 November to 23 December 1947, Walter H. Brattain and John A. Bardeen—under the direction of William B. Shockley—discovered the transistor effect, and developed and demonstrated a point-contact germanium transistor. This led directly to developments in solid-state devices that revolutionized the electronics industry and changed the way people around the world lived, learned, worked, and played.”

In the years to follow, numerous inventions have been based on the ingenuity of engineers who figured out how to cram more and more transistors into an integrated circuit, a process that has made possible the continuing miniaturization of computing devices while at the same time providing them with more power to perform more tasks.

One such invention taking advantage of the ongoing process of better-faster-smaller was the Alto personal computer. On December 19, 1974, Butler Lampson at Xerox PARC sent a memo to his management asking for funding for the development of a number of Alto personal computers. He wrote: “If our theories about the utility of cheap, powerful personal computers are correct, we should be able to demonstrate them convincingly on Alto. If they are wrong, we can find out why.”

The Alto, inspired by Doug Engelbart’s “Mother of All Demos”—or the mother of all concepts videos/demonstrations about the future of computing—in turn inspired Steve Jobs when he first saw the Alto at Xerox PARC in December 1979. Jobs was specifically taken by the Alto’s graphical user interface (GUI) which was later used in Apple’s Lisa and Macintosh personal computers. “It was like a veil being lifted from my eyes,” Jobs told Walter Isaacson, “I could see what the future of computing was destined to be.”

In 1986, Jobs was no longer with Apple and was busy exploring the future of computing with the NeXT Computer. Apple was “on the upswing,” according to Sculley. But Apple Fellow Alan Kay told him “next time we won’t have Xeorx.” By that Kay probably meant that they were missing Steve Jobs’ talent for recognizing emerging technologies and their potential to become successful products and his talent for creating a compelling and motivating vision based on his insights. “I believed it was important to show people that Apple can still be creative after Steve left,” says Sculley.

A year of surveying emerging technologies and ideas by visiting universities and research laboratories and engaging in discussions with Apple engineers culminated in the Knowledge Navigator video, in which “we tried to map out what might seem obvious to everybody in twenty years,” says Sculley. He describes it as a vision for 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.

The Knowledge Navigator helped attract and retain talent, according to Sculley, and it inspired a number of projects and products—Quicktime, a desktop multimedia presentation software for the Macintosh; Hypercard, the first truly interactive scripting software that could be used without knowledge of programming; and the Newton, the first hand-held computing device or Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) as the product category was called at the time. The Newton itself was not successful, but it housed the ARM processor (the type that powers smartphones today) which Apple co-developed. The company later sold its ARM license for $800 million.

Thirty years later, talking “knowledge navigators” or intelligent assistants—Amazon’s Alexa, Google Now, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana—are finally a reality, but they are still far from displaying the versatility and understanding (i.e., intelligence) of the visionary Knowledge Navigator.

But Sculley is still the enthusiastic marketer he has been all his working life (“in marketing, perception always leads reality”), predicting that by 2025 “this kind of technology will be useful and indispensable, and will have high impact on how work is done” and the re-invention of healthcare and education.

Following his convictions about the future, Sculley has invested in or has been involved with applying big data analytics and artificial intelligence to re-inventing work and healthcare, with startups such as Zeta Global, RxAdvance, and People Ticker. “We no longer live in linear time,” says Sculley.

It’s also possible that we have never lived in linear time, something which makes predictions, especially about the future, difficult. As Peter Denning wrote in the Communications of the ACM (September 2012): “Unpredictability arises not from insufficient information about a system’s operating laws, from inadequate processing power, or from limited storage. It arises because the system’s outcomes depend on unpredictable events and human declarations [society’s support for the adoption of specific technologies]. Do not be fooled into thinking that wise experts or powerful machines can overcome such odds.” Or as Bob Metcalfe wrote in Internet Collapses: “it’s relatively easy to predict the future. It’s harder to make precise predictions. And it’s hardest to get the timing right.”

Still, no matter how many predictions go wrong or maybe because so many predictions go wrong, we continue to seek—and create—guideposts, potential alternatives, and inspiring visions.

In Beyond Calculation: The Next Fifty Year of Computing, a collection of essays which Denning and Metcalfe edited in 1997, they wrote that they hoped their product will be not about predictions, but about developing “possibilities, raise issues, and enumerate some of the choices we will face about how information technology will affect us in the future.”

Originally published on

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