This is the inaugural post for a weekly recurring series I'm starting called Thursday Thinkers. The purpose of this particular series will be to draw out and highlight individuals throughout history that have contributed amazing things to the furthering of our world (usually through math, sciences, technology, but don't hold me to that.)
In particular I hope to focus on individuals that many might not be familiar with. The hidden or perhaps forgotten thinkers of our past which have impacted our lives in tremendous ways. For those that love history, this should be a wonderful series for you. For those who love "knowing things" (you know who you are) I hope you'll find these posts filled with useful fodder for your next round of trivia. For everyone else, keep reading, I'm sure you'll find something you appreciate.
Without any further introduction, let's jump right into our first Thursday Thinkers individual profile:
J.C.R. Licklider (1915-1990)
The American computer scientist and psychologist was informally known to most as simply "Lick" an affectionate nickname given to him by his colleagues and friends. He also has another nickname which you may hear dropped in conversation by those who are more familiar with his work and his many contributions to modern computing. To these individuals he's also been called "Computing's Johnny Appleseed". This particular moniker is a fair appellation due to the strong and prolific work he did in establishing the basis for information technology.
Lick's illustrious and comprehensive contributions
Many would consider Lick to be an 'ideas' guy. Though he was not directly responsible for contributing to the creation of the internet or furthering its development, his many ideas served as the basis on which much of modern personal computers and the internet were built. He was critically important to the funding and managing of research related to interactive computing and the relationship between humans and computers. The most well-known result of this came by the work of Douglas Engelbart who created the system where the computer mouse was invented.
In addition to this, Lick also played a vital role as the director of ARPA, which most will recognize by it's more modern name DARPA, or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. One of his major achievements during this phase was the funding of Project MAC (a mainframe computer sharing resources to up to 30 simultaneous users sitting at different "terminals")
But his work didn't stop there, he continued to think about and fund the furtherance of this project as it evolved into ARPAnet, and in 1962 he postulated the earliest ideas of a global computer network. This memo entitled, "Intergalactic Computer Network" described in detail almost every aspect of the internet today, including the theory of cloud computing.
Whew, what a list, and I only picked up a few of the highlights! Clearly the work of JCR has impacted our world in a positive way. But there's one area that I only briefly mentioned earlier that I would like to return to quickly.
The human-computer relationship
Did you notice the bold sentence in the paragraph above? The concept of the relationship between humans and computers. Today, we are more familiar with this language if we use the more common vernacular, artificial intelligence. That's right, Lick predicted very early on the incredible importance and role this would play in the future of our world. But he didn't stop there. In his paper, "Man-Computer Symbiosis" he digs into this concept into much greater depth and if you are so inclined I would definitely recommend reading this fantastic research paper.
Side note: I found this to be the "aha" moment for me while researching and studying Mr. Licklider and his work. It's easy to be enamored with modern theorists and vocal entrepreneurs (e.g. Elon Musk) who vocalize their thoughts and opinions on the future of artificial intelligence. I believe it is of equal importance to recognize the historical work and prophetic work of these early visionaries.
Lick described the concept of a brain machine interface. Rather than the notion of a disparate robotic intelligence which would compete with humans in the future, Lick focused on the possibilities of a brain machine interface (a hybrid human-ai). This is the same thinking shared by companies such as NeuraLink and others working today in this exciting forefront of artificial intelligence.
I share the views put forth by Licklider (and by extension Musk) when he describes this symbiotic relationship as the next step in our digital frontier. Here is a brief summary:
"Man-computer symbiosis is an expected development in cooperative interaction between men and electronic computers. It will involve very close coupling between the human and the electronic members of the partnership. The main aims are 1) to let computers facilitate formulative thinking as they now facilitate the solution of formulated problems, and 2) to enable men and computers to cooperate in making decisions and controlling complex situations without inflexible dependence on predetermined programs. In the anticipated symbiotic partnership, 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. Preliminary analyses indicate that the symbiotic partnership will perform intellectual operations much more effectively than man alone can perform them. Prerequisites for the achievement of the effective, cooperative association include developments in computer time sharing, in memory components, in memory organization, in programming languages, and in input and output equipment."
- J.C.R. Licklider
Lick's visionary auguration
The absolutely mind-blowing part of this summary is not Lick's view or method by which the two systems would collaborate (as astonishing as that might be.). No, the truly spectacular aspect lies in the fact that J.C.R. Licklider made these statements in 1960.
For these reasons I could not think of a better first individual to commence our Thursday Thinkers series. I hope you have enjoyed learning more about this revolutionary individual. Mr. Licklider was clearly a thinker. And we are forever changed as a result.