Being a pioneer of artificial intelligence and creating the first programming language for kids are no small feats. But it was his dedication to using technology to change the way we educate children that made Seymour Papert, who died Sunday at the age of 88, a true visionary.
"It's not like somebody who invented C++ or some other programming language," said Michael Tempel, president of the Logo Foundation and a colleague of Papert's for 35 years. "The language is just one aspect of the whole approach to teaching and learning, and that's really the main thing."
Born in Pretoria, South Africa on February 29, 1928, Papert focused his academic pursuits on philosophy and math, earning his PhD at the University of Witwatersrand before studying at Cambridge (where he earned another PhD in 1958). During his second doctoral program, he did work at the University of Paris, where he met Jean Piaget—the father of childhood development theory. Piaget inspired Papert to combine his passion for both education and technology to find new ways to engage children.
In the 1960s, Papert joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he and Marvin Minsky co-founded the Artificial Intelligence lab and laid the foundation for some of the earliest work in AI. Minsky and Papert co-wrote the book Perceptrons, considered a seminal examination of artificial neural networks—and their limitations.
At the same time, Papert was working on developing ways of integrating computers and technology into children's education, which is why he helped create Logo: a programming language designed for children. Logo allowed kids to see a real-world representation of the coding language they were manipulating, first with a physical robotic turtle, which would move in response to commands, and later with a digital representation of that turtle:
Computers with Logo-editing programs in the 70s and 80s inspired a generation of coders and hackers. A thread on yCombinator's hacking forum Hacker News, in memory of Papert, contains multiple recollections of discovering the joy of code through Logo.
"My most fond memory of when I first saw a computer, it was running Logo," one poster wrote. "I got into trouble in school for throwing away the provided instructions and starting to hack that turtle into writing my name the moment I realized I could control it. I never looked back from that day. I was eight years old."
Logo complemented Papert's philosophy of education, which focuses on project-based learning that allows kids to explore and learn new things by building on what they've already figured out. This style of education has largely stayed in the fringes of alternative or progressive schools, and was never really integrated into the mainstream education system.
Similarly, Papert's big picture ideas about AI have largely been eschewed for more practical and commercial pursuits, like using AI to target advertising or help you pick out a bottle of wine. In 2002, Papert lamented that AI development had become too narrow.
"We started with a big 'cosmic question': Can we make a machine to rival human intelligence? Can we make a machine so we can understand intelligence in general?" Papert said at a symposium at MIT. "But AI was a victim of its own worldly success. People discovered you could make computer programs so robots could assemble cars. Robots could do accounting!"
Still, the Logo Foundation continues to help educators find ways to incorporate Papert's philosophy of learning into a more traditional school settings, and descendents of the Logo language (such as Scratch) are growing in popularity both in schools and in extracurricular learning environments, like coding clubs. Tempel said that, though neither Logo-inspired education nor aspirational goals of AI are mainstream, they endure because of Papert's lifelong advocation.
"He just kept pushing the vision forward for the rest of us to implement as best we can," Tempel told me. "He's been my inspiration for 35 years and he still is and he still will be. He's with me all the time."