What does theoretical computer science have to do with art and the movies? Alvy Ray Smith, who has done it all, tells that story. Born before computers and pixels, he has ridden the Moore’s law supernova wave all the way from the first pixels to the first digital movie, Toy Story, from Pixar, the company he cofounded. But before that, he was an oil painter in New Mexico and then took a decade-long voyage through computation theory for his PhD work and early professorhood. A cover of Scientific American brought him an early fame of sorts and a request to design the cover for the annual proceedings of the Symposium on Foundations of Computer Science. Smith’s talk for the Simons Institute will feature that FOCS cover, used for 38 years in print and three more as the proceedings went digital. He executed it with pre-digital technology but uses it to explain the central dogma that drives much of modern computer graphics. Smith spent the last 10 years writing a book called A Biography of the Pixel. His talk will reference the book, but many parts of his discussion will be UC Berkeley specific, having to do with the computation-theory crowd and its influence.

Alvy Ray Smith began his career as a computer science professor at New York University and UC Berkeley, focusing on cellular automata theory. From there, he set out on a path through industry labs to Lucasfilm, where he became the studio’s first director of computer graphics. He went on to cofound Pixar and Altamira. Smith holds a PhD from Stanford University and honorary doctorates from New Mexico State University and the New York Institute of Technology. He has received two Scientific and Engineering Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is the creator or co-creator of many pieces of computer art, including Sunstone in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and has published widely in theoretical computer science, computer graphics, and scholarly genealogy. He is the author of the book A Biography of the Pixel (2021) and the director of the film The Adventures of André & Wally B. (1984). He is currently an advisor to Baobab Studios, an award-winning VR start-up in Silicon Valley.

Theoretically Speaking is a lecture series highlighting exciting advances in theoretical computer science for a broad general audience. Events are free and open to the public, with first-come, first-served seating. No special background is assumed. Registration is required and will open as we get closer to the event. This lecture will be viewable thereafter on this page and on our YouTube channel.

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