What’s A Human-Powered Computer?

John Maeda
4 min readNov 25, 2020

In the spring of 1993, my experiences as a hardware and software engineer collided with the art world as an installation in Kyoto benefitting from the educational direction of edutech pioneer Nobuyuki Ueda. Having worked for too long in the abstract world of electricity and cyberspace, I hungered to see it made real, in order to understand it better. Thus was born the Human Powered Computer Experiment, which was “performed” by Dr. Ueda’s graduate students in a two-day long workshop where human beings embodied the working components of a computer.

At the time computers still had disk drives, so the entire system started up by turning on a power switch, and then placing a giant cardboard disk into a slot through a partition. On one side of the divider sat the computer user; the other half was for the human-powered computation to happen. The performance area spanned two floors of empty space so that visitors could view what was occurring on both sides at the same time.

Photo by Mitsue Ueda

When the power switch (made out of paper) was flipped to “ON,” the corresponding person playing the “power manager” role was watching and followed a handwritten script:

She was waiting for the disk to be placed into the slot so that information could be read off of the disk’s platter through a window — just like the way a computer would read information from a floppy disk.

Each of the “sectors” of the floppy disk were pieces of paper that would spin into view one by one.

As information was being read off of the disk, the bus would then deliver the data to the relevant component — CPU, memory, mouse driver, GPU, etc — to do the work of “booting” the computer to become operational.

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John Maeda

John Maeda: Technologist and product experience leader that bridges business, engineering, design via working inclusively. Currently VP Design and A.I. at MSFT.