IBM Chief Scientist to Launch TV Series on Computing

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2011-11-29

IBM Chief Scientist to Launch TV Series on Computing

IBM's chief scientist for software engineering research has launched a new project to bring computing into the lives and living rooms of people all over the world.

Remember Carl Sagan's Cosmos series, which unlocked the secrets of the universe for mere mortals? Well, this project, known as "Computing: The Human Experience," is aimed at doing the same thing for the computer industry.

Grady and Jan Booch launched the project and recently introduced a Kickstarter site to raise money to kick start it. Grady Booch, chief software engineering scientist at IBM Research, is Computing's head writer and narrator.  Jan Booch, Grady's spouse, is co-creator and writer for the project. She is a psychologist, social worker and theologian. Her role on the core team is to ensure that the human issues that inform the story are included.

I've known Grady for many years (and I've covered the IT industry for many more) and he is the real deal - a true computer scientist who relishes sharing his craft and his knowledge with others. I can think of no other person I've met in the industry who would be better suited to narrate the story of computing. Grady has been involved with the Computer History Museum as a board member and has worked to preserve classic software. So the field is a part of him; he lives and breathes it. He also has the perfect temperament and voice. And he is a consummate story teller, able to hold audiences both technical and layman rapt with his talks.

About four years ago, Booch said he approached John Hollar, president and CEO of the Computer History Museum, and said the museum ought to do something like Sagan's Cosmos except for computing. Hollar said "Why don't you be our Sagan?" Grady gave it some thought and soon after the effort began.

When Grady and Jan first mentioned the project to me, I found it interesting and challenging. I thought, "how could I write about it and do it justice?" But I don't have to. They did it for me. Claiming the story of computing is the story of humanity, the Computing project's Kickstarter site says:

"Computing is a story of ambition, passion, invention, creativity, vision, avarice, and serendipity, powered by a refusal to accept the limits of our bodies and our minds. From the abacus to the iPad, from Gutenberg to Google, from Enigma to GPS, we have created computers to count the uncountable, remember beyond our own experiences, and see the invisible as well as the unforeseeable. To explore computing is the 21st century equivalent of Cousteau exploring the sea, of Hughes exploring modern art and of Burns exploring the American experience through the Civil War, baseball and jazz."

Moreover, the Kickstarter site said: "Computing will eventually become a multi-part documentary series. It will be broadcast (via traditional media as well as Web streaming, if all goes as planned), but also online: on your iPad in an interactive format; as an e-book on your Kindle or phone; as a social network and Website, getting people connected to their interests and to each other; as a series of educational games for kids and teens; and as a platform for getting more girls and minorities excited about becoming our next generation's Mark Zuckerberg-ses and Steve Jobs-es."

Grady brings the technical chops to the project. He is a world-renowned computer scientist who is recognized for his innovative work in software engineering. In addition to his role in IBM Research, Grady also is an IBM Fellow - IBM's highest technical position. Grady is co-author of the Unified Modeling Language (UML) and was instrumental in the development of object-oriented programming (OOP). Grady holds a long list of achievements, including being a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). And though he is loath to admit or discuss it, Grady was approached by Microsoft to succeed Bill Gates as chief software architect.

Before ascending to such lofty positions, Grady taught himself to program with a Fortran manual he was able to get his hands on by constantly harassing an IBM salesman as a technologically precocious 13 year-old - a feat much rarer in his day as a teenager than today. Better yet, Grady says he was 12 when he built his first computer.

Meanwhile, Jan's role on the project is multi-faceted. As a social worker, she attends to issues of multiculturalism, inclusivism and the impact computing has had on society. As a psychotherapist, her focus is on how human desires and needs have shaped and continue to shape the development of computing technology. As a theologian, her focus is on the moral and ethical issues found in the story of computing. Finally, as a non-technical person, she assures that the stories will be approachable, understandable and interesting to the general public.

"One of my jobs on this is to make Grady interesting to the non-technical people out there," Jan said.

The general public is one of three primary audiences the Booches want to reach with Computing; the other two are middle school-aged kids and the people who help make the technology that shapes the industry, Jan said.

IBM Chief Scientist to Launch TV Series on Computing

title=Celebrating With the Geeks} 

The message for the general public is key, Grady says. As evidence, he mentioned an incident with his goddaughter who said she already knows everything she needs to know about computing. When they asked her what she knew, she said she knew keyboarding and how to surf the Web. "That was frightening and it gave us even further impetus for the project," Grady said. "We want to make sure people get an opportunity to know what's behind their Facebook page."

Jan said targeting middle school kids is strategic because it is important to get to kids early to get them interested in IT. "There are so few coming into the field now, especially women and minorities. We want to reach them."

In addition, regarding the folks who made and continue to make the technology, the geeks, Jan said, "We'd like to celebrate with them the technology they've created."

Grady and Jan are joined on the project by Hollar, who serves as executive producer, along with co-creator and writer Seth Friedman, and director of development Jim Bentz.

To help guide the work on Computing, the Booches assembled an advisory board of luminaries including Vint Cerf, Tim O'Reilly, Mary Shaw, Ph.D., who is the Alan J. Perlis Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, and two of the world's leading historians on computing, Dag Spicer and Martin Campbell-Kelly. In addition, Alan Kay, a pioneer of OOP, personal computing and GUIs, and co-founder of the Viewpoints Research Institute, and Lieutenant General William Lord, Chief of Warfighting Integration and Chief Information Officer in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, have joined the Computing board. As quiet as it's kept, don't let Grady's long locks and "hang loose" demeanor fool you. He's a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, one of the nation's most exclusive institutions, and he knows how to behave as an officer and a gentleman.

An executive summary of Computing said: "Computing will teach the essential science of computing, present the stories of the people, events and inventions in the history of computing, examine the connections among computing, science and society, and contemplate the future."

Indeed, Grady said the goal of Computing is to tell the story of computing in 11 one-hour episodes. And they expect to deliver the series in the fall of 2014 via traditional cable networks as well as streaming platforms.

With 11 hours, there are 11 themes for the project. One is the basic architecture of computing, which sets the stage for discussing what computing is. From there, Grady will explain how much of computing evolved from warfare. Another theme will be computing's role in commerce and along with that the rise of the mainframe.

The Kickstarter site further explains:

"We will launch a lecture series on each of the various topics we intend to explore in the broadcast series. We have architected a full set of talks, such as Woven On The Loom Of Sorrow (about computing and war), Deus ex Machina (about computing as a companion as well as a challenge to faith), The Incredible Lightness of Being (computing and the extension of the human body through games, virtual worlds, artificial organs, and robotics) and several others."

"We also look at how technology is changing the shape of governments and the social revolution," Jan said.

While the Computing project has been in the works for nearly four years, it is now at the point where funding is required to take it to the next level. And although IBM has given Grady its blessing for the project, it is not an IBM effort and thus Big Blue will not be footing the bill. Overall, the effort is expected to cost up to $11 million.

Meanwhile, in case the description above doesn't get you interested in the project, this excerpt from the Computing executive summary should:

"Computing has played a fundamental role in the advancement of the human spirit, encompassing war, commerce, the arts, science, society, and faith; computing causes us to consider the very meaning of self and sentience. The impact of computing on humanity is therefore a clear and present reality and as such, it compels us to tell the story of computing now, so that we may intentionally shape the future of computing rather than be passively shaped by it. An informed and educated populace is far more able to reconcile its past, reason about its present, and intentionally create its future."

Grady says Computing will be different from other efforts to explore the world of IT, as "No documentary project has yet covered the subject in such a scope or style. In the spirit of Carl Sagan's Cosmos, Computing will inform, inspire and entertain."

He cited the Robert X. Cringely documentaries -- Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires and Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet - as examples of projects that have gone before. However, Computing will be different in terms of depth and style, he said.

"This is not a talking heads kind of thing; this is more of a story driven thing," Grady said.


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