When Scott Fahlman clicked the keys for “colon,” “minus” and “end parentheses” back in 1982, he expected his colleagues would have a good laugh and forget it by morning.
“And here we are 32 years later, and we’re still talking about it,” Fahlman said Monday.
Fahlman, who grew up in Medina in the ’50s, is credited with typing out the first smiley “emoticons” on computers — :-) and :-( — on Sept. 19, 1982, while working on message boards at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
It all began with Fahlman’s colleagues discussing a physics problem on a message board. Someone made a joke.
At least one staff member didn’t get the joke and another staff member suggested designating humorous messages as such to minimize misinterpretation.
A light bulb lit up in Fahlman’s head.
“So I’m staring at the keyboard, and I’m thinking we need some way to show an expression,” said Fahlman, 66. “The first thing you need is eyes. So I tried the colon.”
And the rest was history.
“Soon enough, it was showing up in other messages,” he said. “These days, we would say it went viral.”
Decades later and Fahlman has heard estimates that as many as a half-billion smiley faces are used in text every day worldwide.
Despite their widespread use, Fahlman remains humble about his invention.
“I think most of us have had the experience of making up a joke or a funny name or a quip of some kind,” he said. “Then a year later, you hear someone else make the same joke and you think, ‘Did that make it all the way around the world, or did someone else think up the same thing?’ ”
Fahlman hasn’t made a day job out of jumbling together expressive character sequences on his keyboard.
“What I’ve done my whole career is tried to get common-sense knowledge into machines — the sort of stuff we assume everybody else knows,” he said. “Without it, you can’t read even a simple story and make sense of it.”
Fahlman, who earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said machines can grasp complex matters if they’re programmed to do it, but can’t draw simple conclusions about facts because they don’t have common sense — yet.
He said he hopes to make significant strides in the field in the coming years.
“I think we’ve made some real progress recently — both in our ideas, and also that computers are almost 1,000 times faster than they were in grad school,” he said.
He said he never even saw a computer until he went to MIT, and now they’re in almost every home in America.
Fahlman said when he was growing up in Medina, he always knew he wanted to work with machines.
“When I was a kid, all the TV shows had robots. Sure, they looked awful and were made of cardboard, but they were robots,” he said. “And because of those shows, I wanted to either be a space man or a robot designer.”
He said his aspirations evolved when astronaut John Glenn went into space in 1962, when Fahlman was 13.
“You had to be very brave to get up into space, but I realized then that he was just cargo. The computer was doing almost everything,” he said. “Plus, you had to be very fit to make it into space.
“So I decided robots were a better choice.”