Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Seymour Papert (1928-2016)

Seymour Papert, the great AI pioneer, passed away Sunday at the age of 88. In the theory community we best know him for his 1969 book Perceptrons with Marvin Minsky, who died earlier this year. In that book they show that a perceptron (what we now call a weighted threshold function) cannot compute parity, one of the first examples of a circuit lower bound.

In the summer of 1982 I worked a a computer camp in Los Olivos, California and we taught the kids programming with the Logo programming language, a simple functional language co-created by Papert and Wally Feurzeig. In Logo you controlled a virtual turtle that carried a pen and you could give simple instructions like raising and lowering the pen, moving forward and backward and turning. With simple functions one could create complex diagrams, like the one above. Normally you would see the diagrams on a screen but we also had a physical electronic turtle that would move and draw on a sheet of paper. The kids loved it since they could see the results of their programs as a picture while they learn programming functions and recursion without realizing it.

You can play with Logo at Turtle Academy  Logo set the stage for control of actors in many other computer languages designed for children including the tasks for the popular Hour of Code.

Let's raise our turtle pens to honor Papert and the many that he brought into the world of computing.


  1. PencilCode is another excellent Logo-like system, available for free on the web

  2. He was a truly wonderful person. Papert and Minsky came to UNICAMP (Campinas, Brazil) for a month at the end of the 70s to explore the idea of using Logo-like technologies to leapfrog Brazilian Math instruction into the 21st century. Technology is much cheaper and faster than training a generation of teachers, besides the many positives of Logo (see Papert's Mindstorms for eloquent arguments.)
    They were also fascinated by the idea of Samba Schools, which, at the time were popular, seemingly organically grown organizations, that put in tremendous time and resources for Carnival celebrations. (see Guillermopietro's Samba for a more recent account of Samba Schools.)

    Unfortunately, proper Logo instruction does seem to require a relatively well educated teacher, and the "Brazilian Economic Miracle" that would provide massive investments in education ended in a bust (a cycle that is repeating now). Still, the visit influenced many excellent Brazilian scientists, and left wonderful memories of two caring, attentive brilliant men.