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  • >> up to recently at Google Research recently joined Google Android. As a native Chinese,

  • I was very fascinated by Tom's work on Chinese ethnic group classification. It's actually

  • interesting from a computer science point of view today that, how would you classify

  • people into--who had been living, you know, who have had patch of land for thousand, thousand

  • of years and how do you divide them into different ethnic groups? What features would you use?

  • Is it--is the language that they speak? Is it the proximity in geography or is it the

  • clothes they wear or how they marry? What features do we use to classify them to different

  • categories? And Tom did the most thorough study of this, that how--officially was classified

  • in the 1950s with the pretty important political ramifications in terms of representation even

  • though most of the representations in province of China was talking but still, it was important

  • for all groups to be represented. And he traced and analyzed how that project went and it

  • was fascinating. But today, he's going to talk about another topic that is just as fascinating

  • which truly is interesting to me because as a research scientist I've devoted a big portion

  • to my career and study how to enter information into computers. And Tom's study shows that

  • much of this work we do today on mobile phones, on touch screens are actually foreshadowed

  • by what Chinese engineers and inventors have done in the past many decades. So, I'm very

  • pleased to be able to invite him to give a talk on this topic today. So, please welcome,

  • Tom Mullaney. >> MULLANEY: Thank you very much. Can you

  • all hear me okay? Excellent. So, it's a great pleasure to be here and an honor and I want

  • to thank Xu Man Jai for inviting me to speak with you today. The talk of the paper has

  • changed many, many times, many iterations. So, we're going to keep the main title of

  • the Chinese typewriter in Silicon Valley but the subtitle has changed a little bit from

  • the abstract to how Chinese typists invented predictive text during the height of Maoism.

  • To give you a little bit of context, the broader set of questions that I'm working on right

  • now in a book, I guess tentatively titled, The Chinese Typewriter, a Global History,

  • is a broader story of 19th and 20th century China which pretty closely connected to the

  • history of European--Euro-American Imperialism is the question of how to render compatible--how

  • to render the Chinese language compatible with the set of information technology such

  • as the telegraph, the typewriter and later forms, which almost in their DNA have been

  • so closely connected to alphabets or more generally speaking, to languages with a very

  • limited set of modules, be they alphabets or syllabaries. And so, there was, during

  • the 19th century and 20th century and even today, this very fundamental question that

  • I post up here, is Chinese script, not the language as a whole, but is script, the Chinese

  • script, Chinese characters, are they compatible with modernity or must they be jettisoned

  • so that China can modernize. And this was a major question in the 19th and 20th Centuries

  • with many people saying no, we have to get rid of characters, use English, even Esperanto

  • in order to modernize. And many even more who saw--who used the imagery of the Chinese

  • typewriter in particular, as kind of proof of this. I say proof in--I italicized that

  • with my voice so as to say that the proof came in a sort of concocted imagined ideas

  • of what a Chinese typewriter must theoretically look like. That would be an immense machine

  • with thousands of keys upon which it takes even five people to type and so forth. And

  • so, you see, some of the earliest and most derogatory and racist perceptions of this

  • from turn of the century that top one is from an article in 1900 all the way through the

  • kind of dregs of B movie culture with a Tom Selleck movie, the Chinese typewriter into

  • the famous dance coined by MC Hammer in You Can't Touch This, known as the Chinese typewriter,

  • that dance was called, because it was meant to mimic what a typist must look like as they

  • move across a massive keyboard into the Simpsons and so forth. So, that is to say that within

  • the story of--the question can--is Chinese--are Chinese characters compatible with modernity?

  • The Chinese typewriter in particular became a kind of icon for those who said no, it's

  • not. And it's a surprisingly durable icon. And what I'm here to talk about today is that

  • parallel to the story, there's a far richer, more significant and interesting story of

  • those who did not give up on this idea, that Chinese characters could be compatible--or

  • rendered compatible with technologies designed without Chinese in mind. And I'm charting

  • in my own work the kind of larger history about this involving Chinese telegraphy, typewriting,

  • Braille, and indexing systems and so forth. But what I'm going to talk with you about

  • today, if I had to kind of make this relevant for an audience that is obviously very interested

  • in deep history, but is also setting out to build things and make things is that when

  • I see the Chinese typewriter, I don't see this. I see a machine whose history is an

  • incredible repository of designed inspiration and some of the most eccentric and brilliant

  • innovation, most of which never saw the light of the day, never materialized into forms,

  • but some of the most brilliant and penetrating analysis and innovation of human-machine interaction

  • of input of data structuring and many other dimensions. And so, in particular, what I

  • want to talk about today is a kind of episode that takes place in the 1950s in China. Now,

  • this is going to be the sort of context and I will be explaining this in a bit. This is

  • a few snap shots of different Chinese typewriters in the 20th century. The episode comes from

  • November of 1956 in the pages of the most--the most widely circulated Chinese newspaper,

  • the People's Daily which featured an article in that fall--one of the fall issues of a

  • typist in the city of Luoyang in China that had performed this unparalleled feat and was

  • reported to have using a Chinese typewriter whose operation I'll explain in a second,

  • using a Chinese typewriter had typed at speeds verging on 80 characters per minute. Now,

  • I invite you not to immediately compare that to QWERTY inputs or things like that, because

  • there, I'm going to try to explain that they're largely irrelevant comparisons but the important

  • comparison is how fast had a typewriter--a Chinese typewriter been at that point. Roughly

  • speaking, if you look at a lot of the archival documents, teaching manuals and so forth in

  • the '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s and on, the average typing speed at this moment was about 20 to

  • 30 characters per minute. So, this thing--this event, this person doing this, if it was real,

  • represented a three-fold increase in speed of input, if you can think of it that way,

  • without any substantial changes to the kind of mechanism of the machine. This was not

  • a new typewriter. This was some sort of change that had taken place to the existing machine.

  • Now, to give you a sense of how the machine works, how these various models up here work,

  • you'll notice that there are--there's a tray bed, if you see right here in the [INDISTINCT]

  • model here. There's a tray bed on the 1960s Double Pigeon model, of 35 characters by 70

  • characters. These are free-floating metal slugs. If you were to pick up this tray and

  • turn it over, they would all fall out. There is a tray selector that can operate along

  • an XY axis and actually can XY--and then the tray bed itself which can move left and right

  • along one axis. And so, you kind of move both, bring the selector in positions, pushed down

  • on the lever and the--something pokes up the slug from the bottom, it is grabbed, inked,

  • it strikes the surface of the platen and then it's returned into the same location. That's

  • the basic functioning of these machines. Now then--so, if you can imagine, this is about--this

  • is 2450 characters. So, the most important dimension of this is taxonomy, is the organization

  • and disposition of these characters. Now, the way that in the 1920s and '30s and '40s

  • characters on the--on the--on the machine had been organized will be very familiar to

  • any--anyone in the room who reads or speaks Chinese, but for those of you who don't--excuse

  • me, it was the--a system known as the radical-stroke system. And basically, this system which dates

  • back to the Ming Dynasty, popularized in the Ching Dynasty, that is into, roughly around

  • the 16th to 17th or 18th Centuries, we're talking about, is a system by which the tens

  • of thousands of characters in the Chinese language are subdivided into a set of 214

  • classes or categories based on the primary component out of which the character is built.

  • So for example, one category of these 214 is the person radical category, the shape

  • here. And here are some examples of characters that fit within it, that are built out of

  • it. The--another radical class is the water radical class here, these three strokes and

  • you can see two characters that would fit into that. And then within each class, the

  • characters are organized according to the number of strokes it takes to produce them.

  • So the character Ta, meaning he would come before the character To because it takes more

  • strokes of the pen or the brush to write the character To. This is the way that dictionaries

  • have been organized and the way the typewriter had been organized. What the article in 1956

  • suggested was that this typist in the city of Luoyang had departed, had kind of taken

  • a radical departure if you will from the system and reorganize the tray bed according to a

  • natural language arrangement. And so if we give--if we take a sample, a very small sample

  • of the 2,500 or so characters--those of you who don't read Chinese, follow with me now.

  • The yellow--the highlighted yellow character is the character Tong. And the important thing

  • about this is that unlike the previous organization which--in which that character would have

  • been put next to characters that has nothing to do with. In this reorganization of the

  • tray bed in 1950s, all of the adjacent--or many of the adjacent characters in the Morse

  • neighborhood, the eight cells around it were--the disposition of those was such that they could

  • be combined with the character Tong in order to produce a real word. Most words in Chinese

  • are actually made of two characters not one. And so for example, this--the yellow character

  • and--can be combined with what's below it, [SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE] meaning, at

  • the same time. To the right, [SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE] in the same period. And

  • then invertedly with the character above it, [SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE] meaning, shared.

  • And then if you can do this with each of the characters on this, every character is both

  • a center and a periphery can be in combined or combinable with everything around it. And,

  • you know, we have to--when we look at an article like this from the People's Daily, which--we

  • have to be very careful. We have to be very careful as to the story and not to believe

  • what we read and kind of follow up. There had been many stories of model workers in

  • the--in the--in the height of Maoism. Model laborers who out produce their quota. Model

  • farmers who out produce their grain quota. And here we have a model typist who had out

  • produced their typing quota, their character quota. So we have to be very careful here.

  • But interestingly, is having spent quite a long time checking up on this, we see that

  • this actually happened and was--I'm going to suggest here, one of the earliest implementations

  • of a system of kind of techno-linguistic system that we now think of as predictive text or

  • natural language arrangement or however we want to--we want to describe it. So more broadly

  • I think before I get into the nitty-gritty of this, I think it's pretty self-evident

  • but let me spell it out that if this is true, then what this alerts us to is the need to

  • look very--much more seriously at a techno-linguistic innovation in three contexts where we don't

  • often go looking for it, China, the Chinese language and in this case mechanical pre-computer

  • system. At the very least, predictive text is not associated with Chinese Language, not

  • associated with innovations in China and it's certainly a very rarely or ever associated

  • with things in the pre-computer information age. So if we--if we--we have to begin by

  • asking the question--this will be relevant here in a second. The primary innovation that

  • I'm talking about here is obviously not a--not the design of a new machine but a new interface.

  • This is a new interface between a Chinese typist and the machine. And so we have to

  • ask the question, was there a context for this typist in Luoyang to kind of pick up

  • and move around the modules on this interface? Was this a total radical--a totally radical

  • act, a very unprecedented act or was there a context for this? And there was a context

  • for this. And the simple--the simple framework for this is that unlike the story of the typewriter

  • and specifically the semiotic interface of a typewriter in every other part of the world.

  • Be it--let's refer to languages more particularly, be it English, French, Italian, Russian, Hebrew,

  • Thai, Cambodian, Arabic and so forth, in the story of which the semiotic interface of each

  • of these typewriters at some point stabilized into QWERTY, AZERTY, and--QWERTZ and so forth.

  • That the story of the machine interface of the Chinese typewriter never stabilized, was

  • never meant to stabilize and was understood as something that would constantly need to

  • be adjusted or changed by the operator through a constant process of optimization. Why is

  • that? The reason for this is--comes in the fact that the basic--let me put this up here,

  • that the basic structure of<