J.C.R. Licklider

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Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider (March 11, 1915 – June 26, 1990), was an American computer scientist and a very important figure in computer science and general computing history.

J.C.R. Licklider.jpeg
Quoting from the Wikipedia:
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.
Licklider was instrumental in conceiving, funding [through DARPA and managing the research that led to modern personal computers and the Internet. 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.

A 30-minute 1972 video gives a nice explanation of the ARPANET, an early version of the "Internet",) has a number of statements from Licklider and gives a good flavor of computer technology at that time.

Licklider's Early Professional Career

Licklider received bachelor's degrees in physics, math, and psychology, and a doctorate with a specialization in psycho acoustics (the psycho physiology of the auditory system). During World War II he worked at Harvard's Psycho acoustics Laboratory, where he did work for the Air Force to find solutions for the communication problems faced by crewman in noisy bomber aircraft.

Quoting from a 1988 interview:

I came to MIT from Harvard University, where I was a lecturer. I had been at the Harvard Psychoacoustic Laboratory during World War II and stayed on at Harvard as a lecturer, mainly doing research, but also a little bit of teaching—statistics and physiological psychology—subjects like that.
Then there came a time that I thought that I had better go pay attention to my career. I had just been having a marvelous time there. I am not a good looker for jobs; I just came to the nearest place I could, which was in our city. I arranged to come down here and start up a psychology section, which we hoped would eventually become a psychology department. For the purposes of having a base of some kind I was in the Electrical Engineering Department. I even taught a little bit of electrical engineering.
I fell in love with the summer study process that MIT had. They had one on undersea warfare and overseas transport—a thing called Project Hartwell. I really liked that. It was getting physicists, mathematicians—everybody who could contribute—to work very intensively for a period of two or three months. After Hartwell there was a project called Project Charles, which was actually two years long (two summers and the time in between). It was on air defense. I was a member of that study. They needed one psychologist and 20 physicists. That led to the creation of the Lincoln Laboratory. It got started immediately as the applied section of the Research Laboratory for Electronics, which was already a growing concern at MIT.

In 1950 Licklider began working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the SAGE (Semi Automatic Ground Environment) project designed to create computer-based air defense systems against Soviet bombers. The state of the art computers used in this defense system required high quality real time interaction with their human operators. Thus, they provide excellent examples of humans and computers working together in real time to solve very challenging problems. This was well before time-shared computers were developed.

Licklider at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN)

In 1957 Licklider became a Vice President BBN, an architectural acoustics design firm. He persuaded them to buy a $25,000 computer, and soon afterward they acquired their second computer, a $150,000 Digital Equipment PDP-1. BBN eventually became a powerhouse in the computer field. For example, quoting from the Wikipedia:

Logo was created in 1967 at Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN), a Cambridge, Massachusetts research firm, by Wally Feurzeig and Seymour Papert. Its intellectual roots are in artificial intelligence, mathematical logic and developmental psychology. The first four years of Logo research, development and teaching work was done at BBN.

In 1960, Licklider published his seminal paper Man-Computer Symbiosis. Quoting from the Summary of the paper:

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.

Here is a very very very important observation Licklider made based on analysis of his work patterns:

About 85 per cent of my "thinking" time was spent getting into a position to think, to make a decision, to learn something I needed to know. Much more time went into finding or obtaining information than into digesting it. Hours went into the plotting of graphs, and other hours into instructing an assistant how to plot. When the graphs were finished, the relations were obvious at once, but the plotting had to be done in order to make them so. At one point, it was necessary to compare six experimental determinations of a function relating speech-intelligibility to speech-to-noise ratio. No two experimenters had used the same definition or measure of speech-to-noise ratio. Several hours of calculating were required to get the data into comparable form. When they were in comparable form, it took only a few seconds to determine what I needed to know.
Throughout the period I examined, in short, my "thinking" time was devoted mainly to activities that were essentially clerical or mechanical: searching, calculating, plotting, transforming, determining the logical or dynamic consequences of a set of assumptions or hypotheses, preparing the way for a decision or an insight. Moreover, my choices of what to attempt and what not to attempt were determined to an embarrassingly great extent by considerations of clerical feasibility, not intellectual capability.

This observation is as important now as it was back in 1960. With appropriate education and motivation, a person working with a computer can solve many complex problems and accomplish many challenging tasks much more rapidly than without computers. A good education system includes helping students learn to work in such problem-solving environments. Even the least expensive of today's microcomputers are far more capable than the computer hardware and software facilities available to Licklider in 1960. However, our educational system has made relatively little progress in helping the broad mass of students learn to effectively use the available compute power.

Licklider formulated the earliest ideas of a global computer network in August 1962 at BBN, in a series of memos discussing the "Galactic Network" concept. These ideas contained almost everything that the Internet is today.

Licklider at DARPA

DARPA (Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)has provided leadership and funding in a number of world-changing projects.

Quoting from http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/J.C.R.-Licklider:

In October 1962 Licklider was appointed head of the DARPA information processing office, part of the United States Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He would then convince Ivan Sutherland, Bob Taylor, and Lawrence G. Roberts that an all-encompassing computer network was a very important concept.

When Licklider began his work at ARPA, there were no Ph.D. programs in computer science at American universities. ARPA began handing out grants to promising students, a practice that convinced MIT, Stanford, University of California at Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon University to start their own graduate programs in computer science in 1965. This is certainly one of Lidlicker's most lasting legacies.

Quoting from http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/J.C.R.-Licklider:

In 1968, J.C.R. Licklider became director of Project MAC at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which he had provided the initial funding for while at DARPA. Project MAC had produced the first computer time-sharing system, CTSS, and one of the first online setups with the development of Multics (work on which commenced in 1964). Multics was the direct ancestor of the Unix operating system developed at Bell Labs by Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie in 1970.

Licklider was director of Project Mac 1968-1971.

28 October 1988 Interview with Licklider

Aspray, William and Norberg, Arthur(10/28/1988). An Interview with J.C.R. Licklider. Charles Babbage Institute. Retrieved 1/13/2009: http://www.cbi.umn.edu/oh/pdf.phtml?id=180.

Here is a quote from the interview that showed Lichlider's early insights into humans and computers working together to solve problems. Lichlider is talking about ideas from his 1960 Man-Computer Symbiosis article.

And I had an experience with Jerry Elkind and his manual tracking experiments, which he had done as a graduate student under my supervision, (although he was an electrical engineer). He was pretty clear [that] there were some relationships in his data; he had all these things plotted on graph paper. There was a stack of them, and we could never see them all at once, and could not tell what was going on until we put big heavy blobs wherever there was a datum point, and went down to the Sloan building where I happened to have an office at the end of a little mezzanine where you could stand and look down on the floor below. So we redirected traffic a little bit, and put all these graphs down there, so we had a hundred or so sheets of graph paper. Then it was obvious what was going on. And I was pretty much impressed. That happened frequently: you do a lot of work, you get in a position to see some relationship or make some decision. And then it was obvious. In fact, even before you could quite get finished, you knew how it was going to come out. "Man-Computer Symbiosis" was largely about ideas for how to get a computer and a person thinking together, sharing, dividing the load—mainly heuristic versus algorithmic. [Bold added for emphasis.]

This idea is very close to what we now call computational thinking. Notice the emphasis on algorithms versus heuristics. Computers are good at following algorithms, while humans tend to be good at heuristic thinking and problem solving. Artificial intelligence makes use of both algorithms and heuristics.

Project Mac

Computing research at MIT began in the 1930s. Some famous names and projects associated with this early work include Vannevar Bush, Claude Shannon, the WW2 Radiation Laboratory, the post-war Project Whirlwind and Research Laboratory of Electronics, and Lincoln Laboratory's SAGE.

Quoting from the Wikipedia:

On July 1, 1963, Project MAC (the Project on Mathematics and Computation, later backronymed to Multiple Access Computer, Machine Aided Cognitions, or Man and Computer) was launched with a $2 million grant from DARPA and headed by Robert Fano of RLE. Fano made the decision to designate MAC as a "project" rather than a "laboratory" since it placed fewer restrictions on recruiting researchers from other MIT departments. [Bold added for emphasis.]
An "AI Group" including Marvin Minsky (the director), John McCarthy (who invented Lisp) and a talented community of computer programmers was incorporated into the newly-formed Project MAC. It was interested principally in the problems of vision, mechanical motion and manipulation, and language, which they view as the keys to more intelligent machines. In the 1950s - 1970s the AI Group shared a computer room with a computer (initially a PDP-6, and later a PDP-10) for which they built a time-sharing operating system called ITS.

Final Remarks

Many computer pioneers such as Licklider were driven by a desire or need to solve important, challenging problems. They were very smart people, working at the problem-solving frontiers of their fields. Computer technology amplified some of their capabilities, and reduced some of the busy body work that was wasting some of their deep creative thinking time.


Aspray, William and Norberg, Arthur(10/28/1988). An Interview with J.C.R. Licklider. Charles Babbage Institute. Retrieved 1/13/2009: http://www.cbi.umn.edu/oh/pdf.phtml?id=180

King, Stephen (1972). Computer Networks—The Heralds of Resource Sharing. Retrieved 1/13/2009: http://www.archive.org/details/ComputerNetworks_TheHeraldsOfResourceSharing. 30 minute video.

Licklider, J.C.R. (March 1960). Man-Computer Symbiosis. IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics. Retrieved 1/11/2009: http://groups.csail.mit.edu/medg/people/psz/Licklider.html.

MIT News (7/18/1990). Dr. J.C.R. Licklider dies at 75. Retrieved 1/13/2009: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/tt/1990/jul18/23439.html.

Sutherland, Ivan (October 19, 2005). Odysseys in Technology: Research and Fun. Computer History Museum. Retrieved 1/13/2009: http://archive.computerhistory.org/lectures//research_and_fun.2005-10-19.102654015.wmv.wmv. 1:26:23 video

The talk was dedicated to Licklider and begins with a humorous story about Licklider, and mentions Licklider's work from time to time. Ivan Sutherland is, of course, one of the very important pioneers in the field of computer science.

Author or Authors

The initial version of this page was developed by David Moursund.