Mar 112019

Today is the birthday (1915) of Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, known simply as J. C. R. or “Lick,” a US psychologist and computer scientist who is considered one of the most important figures in computer science and general computing history. Chances are that you have never heard of him. If you are knowledgeable about the workings of the internet, you might know that LTP stands for Licklider Transmission Protocol. If I have lost you already, then I am sure you have zero idea concerning his importance. Lick is particularly remembered for being one of the first to foresee modern-style interactive computing and its application to all manner of activities; and also as an Internet pioneer with an early vision of a worldwide computer network long before it was built. He did much to initiate this by funding research which led to many innovations, including today’s canonical graphical user interface, and the ARPANET, the direct predecessor to the Internet. He has been called “computing’s Johnny Appleseed”, for planting the seeds of computing in the digital age. Licklider conceived of computers as becoming much more than complex number crunchers, and, instead, being extensions of all manner of human needs and occupations from games to general interaction.

Licklider was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the only child of Joseph Parron Licklider, a Baptist minister, and Margaret Robnett Licklider. He studied at Washington University in St. Louis, where he received a B.A. with a triple major in physics, mathematics, and psychology in 1937 and an M.A. in psychology in 1938. He received a Ph.D. in psychoacoustics from the University of Rochester in 1942. Thereafter, he worked at Harvard University as a research fellow and lecturer in the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory from 1943 to 1950. He became interested in information technology, and moved to MIT in 1950 as an associate professor, where he served on a committee that established MIT Lincoln Laboratory and a psychology program for engineering students. While at MIT, Licklider worked on Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), a Cold War project to create a computer-aided air defense system. The SAGE system included computers that collected and presented data to a human operator, who then chose the appropriate response. Licklider worked as a human factors expert, which helped convince him of the great potential for human/computer interfaces.

Licklider became interested in information technology early in his career. His ideas were the forerunners of graphical computing, point-and-click interfaces, digital libraries, e-commerce, online banking, and software that would exist on a network and migrate wherever it was needed. Licklider’s contribution to the development of the Internet consists of ideas, not inventions. He foresaw the need for networked computers with easy user interfaces.

Licklider was instrumental in conceiving, funding and managing the research that led to modern personal computers and the Internet. In 1960 his seminal paper on “Man-Computer Symbiosis” foreshadowed interactive computing, and he went on to fund early efforts in time-sharing and application development, most notably the work of Douglas Engelbart, who founded the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute and created the famous On-Line System where the computer mouse was invented. He also did some seminal early work for the Council on Library Resources, imagining what libraries of the future might look like, which he had described as “thinking centers” in his 1960 paper.

In “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, Licklider outlined the need for simpler interaction between computers and computer users. Licklider has been credited as an early pioneer of cybernetics and artificial intelligence (AI), but unlike many AI practitioners, Licklider never felt that humans would be replaced by computer-based entities. As he wrote in that article: “Men will set the goals, formulate the hypotheses, determine the criteria, and perform the evaluations. Computing machines will do the routinizable work that must be done to prepare the way for insights and decisions in technical and scientific thinking”. This approach, focusing on effective use of information technology in augmenting human intelligence, is sometimes called Intelligence amplification (IA).

During his time as director of ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) from 1962 to 1964, he funded Project MAC at MIT. A large mainframe computer was designed to be shared by up to 30 simultaneous users, each sitting at a separate “typewriter terminal”. He also funded similar projects at Stanford University, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and the AN/FSQ-32 at System Development Corporation. Licklider played a similar role in conceiving of and funding early networking research, most notably the ARPAnet. He formulated the earliest ideas of a global computer network in August 1962 at BBN, in a series of memos discussing the “Intergalactic Computer Network” concept. These ideas contained almost everything that the Internet is today, including cloud computing.

In 1967 Licklider submitted the paper “Televistas: Looking ahead through side windows” to the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. This paper describes a radical departure from the “broadcast” model of television. Instead, Licklider advocates a two-way communications network. The Carnegie Commission led to the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Although the Commission’s report explains that “Dr. Licklider’s paper was completed after the Commission had formulated its own conclusions,” President Johnson said at the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, “So I think we must consider new ways to build a great network for knowledge—not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and of storing information that the individual can use”. His 1968 paper “The Computer as a Communication Device” illustrates his vision of network applications and predicts the use of computer networks to support communities of common interest and collaboration without regard to location.

All well and good. We know the capacity of the internet to store and make available mountains of information. Before the internet I needed a good academic library to do my research. Now I can do about 80% of my research online, which is wonderful because it means I can live in Cambodia and still have access to a vast array of information from around the world. I still need to travel to libraries for certain research because the materials I need to consult have not been digitized or are not publicly available. That’s the other 20%. Unfortunately the ready availability of masses of information does not make people any smarter. Having information is one thing, knowing how to use it is quite another.

In my last comment I am reminded of recipes as general blocks of information. You need to know how to read a recipe and how to interpret its instructions. Having a recipe by itself is not enough information if you don’t know what to do with it. If you are an experienced cook, I can give you a list of ingredients and some very general ideas and you can create a dish. If you have little or no experience, I have to go to extraordinary lengths to make that information usable. About 8 years ago, I was living in Buenos Aires and my son had it in mind to make a roast goose for Christmas dinner, and asked me how to do it. All through his growing up, I had roast a goose for Christmas, and this was his first year alone. If he had been an experienced cook, I could have explained in a few sentences, but he had only basic knowledge, so I ended up writing 2 pages of notes for him, and on Christmas Day I was on the phone with him 3 times explaining aspects of the process he was struggling with. Even as I write, I am periodically sending text messages to a former student in China who has decided that she wants to learn how to cook and has been going to the market after work and then sends me photos of what she has bought, and wants to know what to do with what she has. There is so much more to cooking than simply having basic information.

I’ll leave you with a puzzle. My Chinese student sent me photos of what she bought: ground beef, onions, leeks, tomatoes, Chinese greens, asparagus and mushrooms. What would you suggest she make for dinner?