The Godfather Of Interactive Computing: J. C. R. ‘Lick’ Licklider

The American computer pioneer often known simply as “Lick” imagined many of the concepts that are now core to the way we use and interact with technology. He provided both ideas and funding for graphical computing, point-and-click interfaces, digital libraries and banking or shopping online. From IBM to the US military’s advanced research agency (DARPA) and MIT, his vision in the 1960s ultimately inspired the Internet and even parts of Unix. Here’s what you may not know about J.C.R Licklider, pioneer of cybernetics, psychoacoustics and artificial intelligence.

Computing’s Johnny Appleseed

It has been said that it is truly difficult to fathom just how revolutionary Lick’s ideas were, as they are so ingrained in all our modern systems that they now just seem like common sense. He has been called ‘computing’s Johnny Appleseed’: a man who didn’t actually develop the physical technology of computing himself, but instead sowed the seeds for the tech to become what it is today.

“If you were ever fortunate enough to meet him, and you said something like, “It’s nice to meet you, Dr. Licklider,” he would ask right away that you please call him Lick,” says the preface to a memorial publication of his writings put together by Robert W. Taylor. “He was Lick to friends, colleagues, and casual acquaintances alike.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Lick studied at Washington University in St Louis, achieving not just a double degree, but a triple degree in physics, mathematics and psychology in 1937. Although he is considered a tech entrepreneur, Lick’s further study focussed more on the psychological rather than the technical side. He went on to complete a Masters in psychology the year after, before obtaining a PhD in psychoacoustics in 1942.

Despite later moves into the field of computer science, Lick’s first achievements were actually in the field of psychoacoustics, where he is also renowned for his complex ideas. His seminal work in this field was the 1951 paper “Duplex Theory of Pitch Perception”, which formed the basis for modern models of pitch perception.

A Symbiosis Of Man And Machine

He first became interested in information technology in 1950, when he moved to MIT as an associate professor, helping to establish a program that taught psychology to engineering students. Lick himself was a pioneer in engineering psychology, at a time when that field was only just starting to take off. Advanced (for the time) computer technology was becoming more and more prevalent in the military, and was even starting to filter into civilian life. Lick and his team were interested in how humans could better interact with these machines — and solving these problems required in-depth knowledge of both the machines and the people using them.

Men are noisy, narrow-band devices, but their nervous systems have very many parallel and simultaneously active channels. Relative to men, computing machines are very fast and very accurate, but they are constrained to perform only one or a few elementary operations at a time. Men are flexible, capable of “programming themselves contingently” on the basis of newly received information. Computing machines are single-minded, constrained by their “pre-programming.”

His seminal work on the idea of interactive computing, something that just sounds like common sense to a modern audience, was the 1960 paper, Man-Computer Symbiosis. Just like Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse, he was interested in improving the interaction between people and their machines. In fact, he even had a part in funding Douglas Engelbart’s On-Line System, which introduced the world to the computer mouse, hypertext and the graphical user interface, among other things.

Lick has been credited as an early pioneer of AI, a field that is currently the subject of much discussion and debate thanks to improvements in the complexity of robotic systems. However his work aligns more strongly with what is known as IA, or Intelligence Amplification. While AI research is concerned with developing robotic and software systems that are able to ‘think’ and function by themselves, IA is more strongly focused on systems that can augment the mental and physical capacity of a human being.

Image by Ben Shneiderman

He believed that human minds would never be replaced by machines, a viewpoint that is in opposition to many modern naysayers. “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.”

An Intergalactic Computer Network

It seems reasonable to envision, for a time 10 or 15 years hence, a “thinking center” that will incorporate the functions of present-day libraries together with anticipated advances in information storage and retrieval and … a network of such centers, connected to one another by wide-band communication lines and to individual users by leased-wire services.

In imagining the future of the library in a 1960 paper, Lick perfectly summed up the concept that, in a little less than 20 years, would form the backbone of the internet. It was in 1962 that Licklider was appointed head of the Information Processing Techniques at ARPA (later DARPA — Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and a year later he was named Director of Behavioural Sciences Command & Control Research.

During this period he was working on a concept called the Intergalactic Computer Network, a networking concept with many similarities to the modern day internet. He imagined “an electronic commons open to all”, even during a time when much of this research was only being used for military applications. The idea of computer access for all was still a ways off, but it was also one that Lick actively worked on, pioneering the concept of computer time-sharing, whereby multiple users could use consoles to access the processing power of a single computer.

While the Intergalactic Computer Network of Lick’s design was never realised, it was part of the foundation for the primitive ARPANet that was developed in the late 60s, based on his vision. He would even send memorandums around the office that were addressed to “Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network”, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the idea stuck.

Licklider was no longer with ARPA when the ARPANet came into existence in 1969. The project consisted of a network of small computers called Interface Message Processors — similar to the concept of routers, which were introduced later. They had an initial data rate of 56kbit/s. The first four IMPs were installed at the University of California, LA, Engelbart’s Augementation Research Center, University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Utah. The network sent its first successful message at 10:30pm, 29 October 1969 which consisted of just the word ‘login’.

Images via Wikimedia Commons

Envisioning The Future

“We need to substitute for the book a device that will make it easy to transmit information without transporting material.”

Licklider wrote this in 1965, more than 40 years before the invention of the iPhone. While the technology of the day was never quite up to performing the tasks that he conceptualised, it is astounding how much of his writing perfectly described technology that has become common in the 21st century — even cloud computing, something which has gained prominence only in recent years. If you have some time, you can listen to Lick speaking on his ideas in this video from the History of Personal Workstations conference in 1986. His speech starts around 4:30 in.

Licklider retired in 1985 after many years of work on computer time-sharing concepts such as Project Mac at MIT, a mainframe computer designed to be shared by up to 30 simultaneous users. He died in 1990, just as the internet was starting to come into the mainstream. It was only just blossoming into something shared by people around the world, as a place for those with common interests to share ideas, regardless of physical distance — just as Lick had predicted in his writings in 1968. You have to wonder if he could have imagined that astronauts in the ISS would be using the internet — a form of his Intergalactic Computer Network — to send messages back down to Earth.

While no one can really claim to have ‘invented’ the internet, Lick was certainly one of the most instrumental characters in seeing its conception. As Robert Taylor said, “all users of interactive computing and every company that employs computer people owe him a great debt.”

These Are Your Numbers is a new Lifehacker series where we profile great minds that have made significant contributions to robotics and computing.

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