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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Licklider's vision: an 'Intergalactic' computer network

Oct. 24, 2011
by Mark Ollig

Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider was a visionary, and an Internet pioneer.

I realize many folks may not have heard of Licklider, however, he is deserving of recognition for his innovative concepts which helped bring us the Internet.

Licklider was born March 11, 1915.

He developed an early interest in engineering, building model airplanes, and working on automobiles.

In 1937, he graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, where he received a bachelor of arts degree majoring in psychology, mathematics, and physics.

After receiving a PhD in psychoacoustics in 1942 from the University of Rochester, he went on to work at Harvard University’s Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory.

In 1950, Licklider went to MIT, where he was an associate professor.

During the early 1950s, Licklider was asked about working on creating a new technology for displaying computer information to human operators. This was for the purpose of improving US air defense capabilities.

It was during this time Licklider’s thoughts about human-computer interactions began.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was established in February 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower, in response to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik I satellite program, which yours truly recently wrote a column about.

The next year, Licklider had written a book titled “Libraries of the Future.”

This book explained how people would be able to simultaneously access (from remote locations) what he called an “automated library,” located in a database inside a computer.

In 1960, Licklider wrote, “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.”

He even began seriously speaking about interactive computers serving as automated assistants – and people were listening to him.

Licklider wrote what eventually became a seminal paper in March 1960, called “Man-Computer Symbiosis.”

In it he wrote, “It seems entirely possible that, in due course, electronic or chemical “machines” will outdo the human brain in most of the functions we now consider exclusively within its province.”

Licklider wrote about the need for computer involvement in formative and real-time thinking.

He described a computer assistant that could perform simulation modeling which would graphically display the results. He also wrote about how a computer could determine solutions for new problems based on past experiences, and how a computer would be able to answer questions.

Even back in 1960, Licklider foresaw a close symbiotic, or interdependent relationship developing between computers and human beings.

His foresight was revealed in his writings regarding computerized interfaces with the human brain – which he believed was possible.

Licklider also wrote a series of memos involving a number of computers connected to each other within a “Galactic Network” concept.

This concept, Licklider wrote, allowed the data and programs stored within each computer to be accessed from anywhere in the world, by any of the computers connected to the network.

He accurately recognized the importance and potential of computer networks, explaining that by distributing numerous computers over a fast-moving electronic data network, each one could share its programs and informational resources with the other.

It seems as if Licklider is describing the basic foundation of the Internet.

Licklider, in collaboration with Welden E. Clark, released a 16-page paper in August 1962, titled “On-Line Man Computer Communication.”

In this paper, he described ,in detail, the concepts of the future use of on-line networks, and how computers would play the role of a teacher for “programmed instruction” training purposes.

A quote from this 1962 paper says, “Twenty years from now [1982], some form of keyboard operation will doubtless be taught in kindergarten, and forty years from now [2002], keyboards may be as universal as pencils, but at present good typists are few."

I, your humble columnist, have always considered myself a good typist.

In October 1962, Licklider was chosen as the first director of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) research program located at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is part of the US Department of Defense.

This is where he was successful in gaining acceptance and support regarding his computer networking ideas. Licklider also helped to guide the funding of several computer science research projects.

While at DARPA, Licklider was involved in the development of one of the first wide area computer networks used in the United States for a cross-country radar defense system.

This network system was connected to many Department of Defense sites, including Strategic Air Command (SAC) headquarters, and the Pentagon.

In 1963, Licklider obtained IPTO funding for the research needed to explore how time-sharing computers could be operated by communities of users, located in various geographic locations.

IPTO originally began development of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) in 1966, which led to today’s Internet.

Licklider had the foresight in the 1960s to accurately estimate millions of people being online by the year 2000, using what he called an “Intergalactic Computer Network.”

In December of 2000, the Internet reached 361 million users, according to the Internet World Stats website.

Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, also known as J.C.R. or Lick, passed away at age 75, June 26, 1990, in Arlington, MA.

About Mark Ollig:
Telecommunications and all things tech has been a well-traveled road for me. I enjoy learning what is new in technology and sharing it with others who enjoy reading my particular slant on it via this blog. I am also a freelance columnist for my hometown's print and digital newspaper.