Walter Bender with Steve Jobs at MIT in 1982
Mathematician, artist, technologist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur, Sorcerer’s Chief Technology Officer has never been interested in fitting into any particular box. As an undergrad at Harvard in the ‘70s, Walter studied a diverse range of subjects from lithography to abstract algebra. He revered math but also adored printmaking, and would often sneak onto the MIT campus to create and copy artwork on the Xerox machine, at the time a valuable asset which happened to have no “key operator.” In other words, it was free. Eventually, he decided to officially enroll at MIT in order to earn a graduate degree. That was around 40 years ago. And he stayed on at MIT as a senior research scientist for years, still holding an emeritus position there to this day.
With only one computer class under his belt, it was ironically Walter’s affinity for art that led him to a career in technology. Learning from and with machines has been a defining theme of his career, but he’s never given up on the creative streak. And along the way, he’s achieved some pretty cool things. Here are some highlights.
Walter explaining personalized media (at the MIT Media Lab 1995)
The MIT Media Lab
Early in his career, Walter received multiple patents in groundbreaking areas of technology, particularly signal and image processing. He also conducted pioneering research work in the electronic publishing domain.
In 1985, together with Jerome B. Wiesner and Nicholas Negroponte, Walter helped launch MIT’s famous Media Lab, with its focus on “technology in support of learning and expressing by people and machines.” Some of his early research projects at MIT included work on a digital mapping technology that looked a lot like today’s Google Street View. Another project involved news personalization and filtering — very similar to today’s Google News.
Today, the lab that Walter once supervised as Executive Director has grown into an interdisciplinary research community with a mission to connect technology back to the social and the human. The current list of projects at the lab covers subject matter from space exploration to agriculture to digital currency.
One Laptop Per Child
In 2006, Walter decided to take a leave from his MIT research projects in order to do something meaningful in a different way. He wanted to give voice to underserved populations, so he co-founded the groundbreaking initiative One Laptop Per Child. The goal of this charity effort wasn’t simply to teach or educate, but to provide the tools that would level the playing field for children from impoverished countries and enable them to learn on their own.
To get there, One Laptop Per Child didn’t just lobby to get free laptops handed out. At the time, consumer laptops were very expensive, used a lot of energy to run, and became obsolete quickly. Walter’s team built a different kind of laptop altogether — one that could run at only 5 watts so that it was practical for remote places without a strong, reliable electrical grid. These laptops were designed to be as green as possible, with LED bulbs instead of fluorescents, and built to last. Many of the laptops distributed in 2007 in places like rural Nepal and the mountains of Peru are still running.
“Kids and teachers are much more capable than we give them credit for. We wanted to give them the opportunity to be expressive and take responsibility.”
— Walter Bender
One Laptop Per Child has given away millions of laptops to children around the world, but Walter’s team also built bespoke software for the laptops that were somewhat ahead of its time. “A lot of things that are now taken for granted began in this laptop,” says Walter. “We discarded the old notions of computing we had all suffered through for 30 years — things like file menus and having to manually save work. Instead, the experience closely resembled today’s collaborative mobile interfaces.” Both the devices and the software were intentionally designed to be functionally repairable and changeable by the children who would own them. The idea was not to just give kids laptops but to give them the means to take ownership of the technology. Eventually, about half the software in the Software Libre catalog was written by the kids themselves.
Walter wanted to take the mission of “teaching kids to learn” a step further, so he also founded the non-profit Sugar Labs, an all-volunteer-driven non-profit where he still serves as a software developer and board member. Sugar Labs develops and maintains the Sugar platform, which features scholastic tools, activities and games that improve students’ math skills, spatial relations, memory, speech, writing, and more.
Walter with OLPC laptop (2007)
“Kids like to mess with things. And sometimes, messing with things makes them better.”
— Walter Bender
Sugar is not just a cool educational platform. It’s a manipulatable platform where students can “recode” their own iterations of all its games. In the process, they learn more about technology — and about how they learn. The goal is to inspire the next generation of computer geniuses and technological masterminds who will someday change the world.
Walter’s passion for music is expansive — although his talent for it, he’ll tell you, is minuscule. So instead of joining a band, he wrote a programming language, Music Blocks, that melds concepts from music theory and practice, mathematics, and computer science. He says, “One of the goals of the music project is to channel Thelonius Monk, who said ‘All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians.’ Music education gives you rigorous knowledge about how to make and perform music. At the tail end of musical education is composition. With Music Blocks, we flip that completely on its head. The composition is something we do right from the beginning. By creating music, we let musical expression drive learning.”
“Being expressive is part of being human. Everyone is both a learner and a teacher. We try to amplify those human traits and build tools and structures that allow those traits to flourish rather than being stifled.”
— Walter Bender
Teaming up with partners in Japan, he’s now deploying Music Blocks in elementary schools throughout the country as part of a Japanese government program to enhance STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. Walter sees a deep synergy between music and mathematics that is both engaging and challenging — what Marvin Minsky, the American cognitive scientist who pioneered the field of AI, called “hard fun.”
Walter presenting at Software Freedom Day, Boston (2011)
This brings us to Sorcero. Walter joined Sorcero as the next step in his journey to help people better learn through technology. “Artificial intelligence-based advancements are not fated to end in dystopia,” he quips. “By guiding and feeding the intelligence of users, solutions like Sorcero offer the promise to strengthen human cognition, not replace it with silicon.”
Walter joined Sorcero because its strong team is building a business on a noble foundation: to enable machines and humans to become partners by letting them learn from each other. Sorcero’s augmentation of human thinking fits nicely into Walter’s lifelong interest in using the technological capability to strengthen human capability.
A career spent demystifying technology
All this to say, Walter Walter is not done yet. In fact, he may just be getting started on his lifelong mission of technology in support of learning — moving beyond helping people learn from technology into helping technology learn from people.
Now, what about you and your team? What could you accomplish for your company, industry, even humanity with the right machines to augment your expertise? Contact us to explore the possibilities.