Feb 132015

At long last, I’m writing to update you on our progress with Computing: The Human Experience. Rest assured, our project continues to advance with great vigor, and although we’ve been incommunicative these past months, we have made considerable progress in developing our materials and our stories.

A quick aside to explain my silence, then I’ll get to the substance of our progress. A year ago I was asked to lead an IBM Research project on the future of our cognitive systems. That effort and its aftermath took a considerable amount of my time. You’ve seen some of the consequences of IBM’s work in the cognitive space: the Watson Group was formed, and we restructured all of our research activities to support near term and long term projects. Throughout all that, nonetheless, I’ve continued to work on Computing’s research and production infrastructure, and now that I’ve finally been able to return all of my attention to Computing.

To recap where we last left things with you, we had met with the most senior executives at corporate PBS to pitch our project to them. KQED – the Bay Area’s local PBS station – had taken us under their wings and commissioned a production team to develop a teaser and a treatment. In 2013 we traveled to Washington DC to present these Computing materials to Beth Hoppe and her lieutenants. They absolutely loved the concept and said that this was precisely the kind of programming to which they aspired. KQED let us retain the rights to the materials that were created so that we could further pitch Computing. They also encouraged us to go forth and find the appropriate production team to bring our project to fruition. As it turns out, the problem was not so much finding the right creative fit as it was metabolizing the producers who were approaching us. We had an Academy Award winning producer connect with us, but we decided he was not the right fit for his style was quite what we wanted. We investigated another well-known production company, but this also was not the right fit, as they weren’t really prepared to produce an event as big as PBS hoped Computing could be.

While I was in London to receive the Lovelace medal from the British Computer Society we met with producer Roy Ackerman of Fresh One Media, whom John Hollar at the Computer History Museum suggested we meet. Roy is an established documentarian with good ties to both PBS and the BBC, and is a part of a very successful company backed by the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. We found almost immediately a good creative and cultural fit. Roy’s team really gets the concept, they have the chops to attend to a transmedia production, and they have a young and vibrant staff who we expect will achieve the right fit for a truly global production.

We continue our conversations with corporate PBS, and have also had similar discussions with National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. So, stay tuned! The good stuff is starting!

In the background this past year, we’ve continued our research such that the stories we tell will be accurate and compelling. The overall structure and vision for the series remains as I first briefed you: we have a dozen or so chapters in mind which we’ll refactor to an appropriate number of hours of broadcast. We’ve begun writing the book, and to help organize our research materials, I’ve developed an extensive online repository wherein most of my research findings have been collected and classified. I have a couple of dozen volunteers from around the world already helping me classify these materials, plus a programmer who has been prototyping ways to visualize timeline information, which informs our storytelling and which we will eventually put on our public website and will probably turn in to a stand-alone app. If you’d like to help us in our research efforts, drop us an email! We still have a couple of thousand stories to categorize, and every bit helps.

Our strategic partner in this project, John Hollar of the Computer History Museum, has encouraged and made it possible for me to lecture at the Museum as a mechanism for developing our voice (you’ll find recordings of three of our past lectures here). I’m scheduled to give my next lecture at the Museum on February 20th, titled Anarchy and Order regarding the intersction of computing and governments. As the photo to the left shows – and as I’ve done with all my past lectures – I first presented my lecture to a group of friends from diverse backrounds. To them I must give a special thanks, for they have helped me greatly in focusing my presentation.

This last year, I developed and presented lectures concerning two of our planned episodes. The first, regarding the limits and possibilities of computing, I gave as a keynote at this year’s Computing Research Association. The second, keynoting an IEEE big data conference in Silicon Valley, I presented some storylines associated with the moral and ethical aspects of computing.

Don’t forget also my “On Computing” column I write for IEEE Software, all drawn from our Computing research. For your listening pleasure, you’ll find podcasts of each of these columns here, the latest being “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace”.

Just a gentle reminder that we have in place a contract with O’Reilly Media for a book to accompany the series as well as a complete series of books for associated topics. We have found a very promising set of authors working on a Kickstarted-funded project, and we are always looking for new talent. If you have a book inside you just fighting to get out, let us know!

It seems that not a day goes by without reading some story in the news regarding the confluence of computing and humanity: from Snowden’s disclosures about the technical capabilities of the NSA to the release of Apple’s new iPhone with biometrics; from a dramatic decline in the cost of sequencing the human genome to dramatic increases in the velocity of programmatic trading, computing is very much a part of the fabric of our lives…and we are privileged to be a part of telling that exquisite story.

As 2015 begins, it’s now time to return to PBS with a new producer, it’s time to develop full treatments for each of the episodes, and it’s time to in parallel turn those storylines into chapters. When I started this journey, I figured we’d raise several million and nail our stories quickly, with the entire process taking two years from vision to film in the can. Egads, have I learned a great deal about the broadcast business: it took about 15 years for Sagan to go from concept to film in the can for the first Cosmos series, and it took Ann Druyan and Neil deGrasse Tyson about 10 years for the reboot! At times I get impatient with my speed of progress, but I must remind myself that the world of media production does not move at the same speed as computing.

I celebrate the support you continue to offer us in developing Computing. We’ve certainly learned more than I ever expected we’d need to know about the travails of the broadcasting business – it positively makes software development look like a snap. It is also evident that Computing: The Human Experience is even more so a subject and a medium that is not only timely, it is essential in a world in which computing has woven its way into our lives in so many ways. We have the opportunity to reach out to millions of viewers, and I’m confident we have the right message and are developing the right team to make it so.

    Follow us on Twitter! Jan can be followed @blondeinabinder and Grady can be followed @grady_booch.

Register for Grady’s next lecture at the Computer History Museum on February 20th (it’s free!). Titled “Anarchy and Order”, Grady will examine how governments use computing in the care of human life and happiness as balanced against the tyranny and subterfuge that this same technology makes possible.

I’m pleased to announce a new advisor for Computing, Dr. James Canton, a futurist, author, and CEO of the Institute for Global Futures. Jame’s latest book Future Smart is a great read!

From Tilly to Vint and lots of great folks in between, we have a wonderful group of advisors.

A special shout out goes to one of our advisors, Dr. Mary Shaw of Carnegie Mellon University, who was recently awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Congratuations, Mary!

Another special shout out goes to our advisor Vint Cerf, who was named to the National Science Board. Congratuations, Vint!