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Work by Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider


In the psychoacoustics field, Licklider is most remembered for his 1951 “Duplex Theory of Pitch Perception”, presented in a paper[12] that has been cited hundreds of times,[13] was reprinted in a 1979 book,[14] and formed the basis for modern models of pitch perception.[15]

Semi-Automatic Ground Environment

A SAGE operator’s terminal

While at MIT in the 1950s, Licklider worked on “SAGE” (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment), 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.[16]

Information technology

Licklider became interested in information technology early in his career. His ideas foretold 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. Much like Vannevar Bush’s, 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. He also did some seminal early work for the Council on Library Resources, imagining what libraries of the future might look like, describing them as “thinking centers.”[17]

Licklider was instrumental in conceiving, funding and managing the research that led to modern personal computers and the Internet. In 1960 his seminal paper onMan-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 thecomputer mouse was invented.

Man–computer symbiosis[edit]

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 men would be replaced by computer-based beings. 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).

Project MAC

During his time as director of ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) from 1962 to 1964, he funded Project MAC at MIT where 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 System Development Corporation. In 1964, Licklider left IPTO and went to work at IBM. In 1968, he went back to MIT to lead Project MAC.[16]

Global computer network

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.[21]

While at IPTO, he convinced Ivan Sutherland, Bob Taylor, and Lawrence G. Roberts that an all-encompassing computer network was a very important concept.

In 1967 Licklider submitted the paper “Televistas: Looking ahead through side windows” to the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television.[22] 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”.[23]

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.