On April 17, I was given the great honor and privilege to speak before the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC.
These are my prepared remarks. I mostly stuck to them, and didn’t improvise as much as I usually do, because I was more nervous than usual at this conference. I knew that I had to speak to children, their parents, and their teachers. I hoped that I would inspire them all to keep doing awesome things, and to do more awesome things. I also hoped that some of my remarks would be heard beyond the walls of the conference, because I’m doing my best to make a positive difference in the world.
Please keep in mind that these remarks are written to be read and performed by me, so they are probably not as strong when read as I hope they are when they are heard.
Hello. I’m Wil.
I’m going to speak directly to the kids in the room for a minute. Parents, if you don’t understand what I’m about to say, ask your child later, and I’m sure she’ll clear everything up for you.
On Friday afternoon, I was putting the final touches on this talk, when my friend sent me an article in the New York Times, about a boy named Jordan. Jordan is 11 years-old, and he loves Minecraft.
Not that it matters, but I’m 43 and I also love Minecraft. I terraformed an entire island made of sand into a giant bunch of grassland with a castle on it, and I did it in survival with no cheats.
But, like I said, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Jordan loves Minecraft, and he especially loves building mazes and puzzles to challenge his friends. One of the things he wanted to do was build some traps that would go off randomly when his friends were exploring one of his mazes. In a computer program, we’d use a random number generator function to randomly decide which tile on the floor of a room releases a flood of lava, or causes the walls to start closing in, but in Minecraft, we don’t have that kind of control over things.
Or do we? Jordan thought about it, and realized that if he built a different room with some pressure plates in it, and put a mooshroom in it, it would wander around, occasionally stepping on a pressure plate that activated a redstone circuit, to make randomly different tiles trigger his traps.
Jordan, like the computer hackers of my generation, looked at the tools available to him, saw that they didn’t explicitly do what he wanted them to do, and hacked them so that they did.
Jordan is kind of my hero, you guys, because Jordan used his ingenuity and creativity to solve a problem, when a lot of other people — including me, probably — would have given up. And did I mention that he did this in a game? Because that’s a really important part of why I think Jordan is so awesome: he was having fun, playing a game, and he chose to do something that was kind of like homework to solve a problem.
So the next time you’re frustrated because your math or science homework is challenging, or a test is really hard, think of Jordan, who look at a problem like it was a puzzle, and solved it … because that’s what scientists and engineers do.
And I know that some of you here today are young scientists and engineers, and I know that you’re going to build the world that I will be an old man in, and I think it would be cool if you made it kind of like Minecraft.
Maybe with fewer spiders.
Okay, parents, you can tune back in.
When I was a kid, I was weird and shy, uncoordinated and super awkward. As a result, I spent a lot of time alone with my imagination. I would go to the library, check out as many books as I was allowed to, read them all, and when I was done, let them inspire my imagination to create my own things. And whether I was writing my own story, or drawing something I’d only seen in my imagination, it was science fiction that inspired me the most. In science fiction, anything was possible! A kid my age didn’t have to struggle with math or sports like I did; he’d just have his personal robot do his homework for him, or use his cybernetic implants to predict where the ball was going to be, and let his mechanical legs put him there to catch it. And it was those books — that art, created in many cases decades before I was born — that inspired me to examine and understand the science that powered the fiction. Those stories put me in rocketships, they gave me command of supercomputers, and made me the last kid on Earth, and without being explicitly educational — which to a kid is code for BORING — they sort of tricked me into learning about everything from basic classical physics to principles of organic chemistry, to the engineering feats required to build a Dyson Sphere.
I never did anything professionally with those interests, and eventually chose a career path that took me into the arts, but I got interested in STEM subjects, and I am passionate about STEM education today, because my interest in ART turned STEM into STEAM. To this day I struggle with advanced math, and I understand calculus as much as I understand hieroglyphics (this is embarrassing, considering how fluent I am in emoji), but there are young people in America and around the world right now who are watching Doctor Who or Star Trek or Mister Robot, and discovering that they have an interest in STEM education, because they, too, are inspired by ART.
And it isn’t limited to science fiction! Remember Jordan, from a minute ago? He wanted to build his traps and mazes because he was inspired by the Indiana Jones movies. What’s Jordan going to build when he’s inspired by Apollo 13? Or Moon? Or even Futurama? Something wonderful.
And this is why I believe that ART is an important part of a well-rounded education, not as an alternative to STEM education, but as a fundamental part of it. I want us to start putting ART into STEM, to make STEAM.
You don’t need to be an art historian to know that we fundamentally cannot understand what is really going on in a civilization until we’ve taken a good hard look at the art that it produces. One walk through the Metropolitan or the Smithsonian can tell us just about everything we need to know about where our ancestors were at just about any moment in our history. It is through the art of their time that we can know what their hopes and fears were, and we can look to their speculative fiction to learn how they were trying to understand the world around them. Their artistic creations, and the artists of their time, are just as fundamental to their society and its scientific advances as the scientists who discovered them.
And I believe that we need to remind ourselves and our children that ART and artists are an important part of the machine of discovery and invention.
In the last century, we had television like Star Trek to inspire us to reach out to the stars, and shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits to warn us about what to do when we got there. That ART took its place next to the science and engineering of the atomic age and challenged our parents and grandparents to use the destructive power of the atom carefully, and maybe to even reconsider using it at all.
Right now, a series I love called Black Mirror is holding a smartphone up to our faces to catch our reflection. One episode tells us a story about a woman who misses her fiance so much, she buys a clone of him, powered by an AI that makes it look and sound like he’s still alive … but she soon discovers that there is much more to a person than how they look and sound and feel … and spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well, because the intangible but incredibly important things that made him who he was couldn’t be recreated. He looked like the person she loved, but he wasn’t human. I watched that episode, and while it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for AI and cloning, it reminded me that there is much more to it than the science that will make it possible. And I really want the people who will be clones of me in the future to think about that, too. I want them to pay attention to Black Mirror, movies like Ex-Machina and artists like Banksy. These works caution as well as inspire, and they encourage all of us to discuss the moral and philosophical issues that accompany technological advancement.
Of course, ART doesn’t have to be heavy and intense, and playing a few hours of Warcraft, losing ourselves a novel like Hyperion, or spending an afternoon with a coloring book – is also good brain break that can lead to scientific breakthroughs. My friend Danica McKellar is best known for playing Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years, but she’s also the co-author of a mathematical proof named the Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem. She tells stories of her and her classmates being so knee deep in the language of mathematics that sometimes they would walk into walls. When you’re trying to figure out a complex engineering or programming problem, sometimes just by switching to a different hemisphere in your brain, you allow yourself room to have a eureka moment. Like Archimedes, taking a bath, playing with his little boats and realizing that what displacement was.
And that Eureka moment brings me to the fact that you don’t need to look very far to see that the A in STEAM is already present within the very core of STEM – there is so much art and beauty inside science. We don’t get people excited about astrophysics by showing them equations. The easiest way to get another human excited about space is to point a telescope at the sky and let them look through it. Math can be complex and confusing, and quite frankly boring and dry … until you start seeing the way mathematics expresses itself in the world around us. The Golden Ratio may be the perfect marriage of art, design, and math. It is everywhere in nature, and once you see it, like the arrow in the FedEx logo, you can’t unsee it in buildings, sculptures, monuments, trees, sand dunes, and ripples in ponds. Not bad for an irrational number!
Oh, and speaking of the Golden Ratio, it’s present in music, too, and music is, at its most fundamental level, a mathematical language.
This doesn’t mean that someone who excels at doing arithmetic in their head is going to be a great musician, or that a great guitar player will magically solve equations with ease. But there’s overlap in the ART and the SCIENCE and when someone is interested in one, they may not even know that the other is right there, waiting for them to do something cool with it, and we have to make sure that they can see it.
And that brings me to something I care deeply and passionately about: general purpose computing and the Internet of Things.
When I was ten or eleven, my parents bought our family a personal computer. It was an Atari 400. It connected to our television, used a membrane keyboard, and was outfitted with 4 kilobytes of RAM. As a simple point of comparison, the document I ended up with when I finished writing this talk was 35 kilobytes. Yes, a single word processing document was nearly nine times larger than the RAM that made our entire computer come to life.
But the thing about that computer is that it would do whatever I told it to do. It was limited only by its memory and how clever I was as a young programmer. There wasn’t a marketing department locking down features so they could sell them to me as in-app purchases. There wasn’t a deliberate crippling of the computer’s inherent capabilities so the manufacturer could sell me additional features, once I paid to have them unlocked. There wasn’t even an Internet to connect to, so the manufacturer couldn’t demand that I connect to a server somewhere to authenticate some DRM scheme.
In other words, we owned that computer, in every sense of the word, and whether I wanted to copy a game program out of a magazine, create my own from scratch, or even play a cartridge-based game like Pac-Man (which was so much better on the 400 than the 2600), it did what I wanted it to do. My imagination was the only thing that limited me, because in those days it was a real challenge for a ten year-old to max out 4K of RAM.
When ten year-old me read a book about UFOs and other mysteries (I was a big fan of a show called In Search Of…), he decided to write a program that would let anyone fill out a sighting report that the computer would store, to be searchable by anyone else. It was all in my imagination — I knew that UFOs were not flying saucers — but it was still an incredibly fun fantasy to imagine. So I turned on my computer, went straight into BASIC, and spent an afternoon writing my version of a database. I saved it to a cassette tape drive, which lasted until KMET was playing all of Zeppelin IV and I decided that I needed to record it.
But while it lasted, I had created something that combined my imagination and fledgling technical skills, and it was pretty great. I was able to create it, because I did not have a device that was strictly locked down to just be one thing, but a tool that I could use however I wanted.
It was the difference between being able to take a set of LEGO and build what my imagination wanted, versus a set of LEGO that could only be assembled one way, according to the instruction manual.
And this is even more prevalent in hardware than it is in software. While nearly any computer can run multiple programming languages, including Python (which is just as easy to understand as BASIC but easier to use by several orders of magnitude), and open source programs and entire operating systems are freely available, much of the hardware we use to run them, especially tablets and smartphones, isn’t really owned by us. You would expect that when you purchase an iPhone or an iPad, that it’s yours to use how you see fit, right? Sure, that makes logical sense, but it doesn’t survive first contact with the DMCA. It wasn’t even until 2015 that Congress affirmed the public’s right to unlock an iPhone, but it’s still illegal to unlock an iPad. And, once unlocked, Apple is legally allowed to turn your device into a fancy paperweight if it wants to. Not that it really matters, but this is one of many reasons that I choose to use Android devices. I like to tinker with my toys, because the curiosity and love of technological exploration and the quest for knowledge that was sparked in me thirty-five years ago is just as strong today as it was then. If there is even one kid today who wants to unlock her tablet or smartphone so she can learn her way around its OS and do whatever she wants, dev-kit or not, but can’t do it because the laws haven’t caught up to the technology, I have a real big problem with that. Because the worst thing you can tell a curious kid is “No, you aren’t allowed to investigate that part of technology because rights holders have a powerful lobby.”
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love the technology we all take for granted today. I love being able to read books, get online, play games, take and share pictures, and even make the occasional phone call all on the same device. But we have to make sure that we don’t trade away the freedom of general purpose computing for the convenience of an Internet of Things. We have to make sure that the opportunities afforded to me thirty years ago are preserved and afforded to children today, and children in the future.
Which brings me to funding.
You’re never too young for science – getting children interested in the world around them, and asking them to try and figure out how things work is a fundamentally good idea. Curious children will naturally gravitate towards STEAM subjects. Let’s encourage that and make sure that a child who wants to explore that particular part of our world has everything she needs to get there, and keep learning about and making awesome things when she leaves. This is and will continue to be a challenge. Despite the clear and undeniable benefits of a comprehensive education, including science education, not only to individuals but to our entire society, we have allowed the funding of our schools to become part of the culture wars. This is as disgraceful as it is predictable. When so many of our poorly-named “leaders” deny scientific consensus on everything from climate change to vaccines, a scientifically literate and well-informed populace can be tremendously inconvenient to them and theiir corporate owners. Well … good. Let’s be inconvenient to them. Let’s educate and empower a generation who will be real leaders, and carry our nation into the future.
We all know that it’s possible to fund STEAM education. The money is there, it’s just being spent on other things. Making enough noise and applying enough sustained pressure to change this will not be easy. It will actually be quite hard. But when has America ever shied away from doing things that are hard? Everything worth doing is hard, and President Kennedy said as much when he challenged our nation to go to the moon. Right now, decades later, every single one of us has benefitted in some way from that commitment. Right now, a generation of future scientists can look to MARS and beyond, because nearly fifty years ago, we did whatever it took to go to the moon.
Why aren’t we doing that today? Because it’s hard?
A generation ago, it was inconceivable to think that we would be able to make a phone call from a thing we carried in our pockets, or that making phone calls would be the least interesting thing about it! So when I hear the people who control the funding for public education tell us that it’s just too hard and that as a nation we can’t afford the investment, I have to seriously question their competence and qualifications. There is absolutely no excuse for any teacher or child in America to walk into a classroom and not have the tools and resources they need to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, and makers.
And we don’t have to put particle accelerators or fission reactors into elementary schools (though that would be pretty cool). We can start on a smaller, more basic, but just as inspiring scale. For example, if we make sure that our schools have the money to buy a ton of vinegar and baking soda, I guarantee you we’ll have a bunch of chemical engineers in 20 years who never get tired of the beauty of a fizzy reaction. If we make sure that kids have the computers they need to write software and the internet connections they need to share it, I don’t know what to guarantee you, because I can’t even imagine what they will be doing twenty years from now. I just know that it’s going to be great!
Just last week, President Obama spoke on Equal Pay Day, and he said, “I want young girls and boys to come here, 10, 20, 100 years from now, to know that women fought for equality, it was not just given to them. I want them to come here and be astonished that there was ever a time when women could not vote. I want them to be astonished that there was ever a time when women earned less than men for doing the same work.” I would add to that, that I want them to also be astonished that women were ever discouraged from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. I want them to be astonished that there was ever a time when fully funding public education and providing full and equal access to education — especially science education — was not a national priority.
And we have a responsibility, as the parents, scientists, teachers, engineers, artists, and mathematicians of this moment to make that world, which may seem like speculative fiction now, a reality that future generations takes for granted.
We are going to grow old in that world, you guys, and I for one would like very much for it to be a little less dystopian than Judge Dredd.
One last thing, before I finish. I want to speak directly to any young people who are here, again: This is your world, we’re just borrowing it for a little bit while you decide what to do with it. We’ve left you a real big mess to clean up, and I’m sorry about that. Believe me, a lot of us tried — and are trying — to make it easier for you, but we haven’t done enough.
So as you get older, and as your knowledge grows, don’t ever stop learning.
Ask all the questions you can think of, and when the answers confuse or inspire you, ask more questions. If your questions make adults uncomfortable … good. Ask them, and then ask more.
Take things apart, and put them back together. Or take things apart and make new things out of them. Don’t ever let someone tell you that you can’t do something because it’s too hard. A lot of things we all think are easy were “too hard” until a clever, brave person said, “You know what? I’m going to do it, anyway.”
Kind of like Jordan and his Minecraft traps, right?
You are growing up at a time when technology is advancing so fast, just about anything you can imagine will likely exist in your lifetime, because you’ll be able to create it … so be careful, and don’t forget to be awesome.
Thanks for listening to me.