J. C. R. Licklider

Internet Pioneer:  J. C. R. Licklider

Glenn Booker  COM 150

February 17, 2013

He just wanted an automated office assistant to help with his psychology research, but the late Dr. Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider (1915-1990) became an Internet pioneer who led the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to start developing a global computer network.  He was also a visionary in human-computer interaction and digital libraries.

Born in 1915 in St Louis, MO, he earned a triple Bachelor’s degree from Washington University with majors in physics, mathematics, and psychology.  His Master’s degree (1938) and PhD (1942) both in psychology were from the University of Rochester.  He taught at Harvard from 1943-1950, and did research mostly in physiological psychology (Rappold).  He didn’t care about computers until he needed help modeling human perceptual mechanisms, such as how vibrations are interpreted as sound.  After self-study, he realized that a large amount of his time was spent on clerical tasks that could be done more efficiently by a machine (Rheingold). 

In 1950 he moved to MIT and worked on an air defense system called SAGE.  That gave him his first inkling that computers could work more closely with humans, instead of feeding them batches of punch cards and waiting for the output (Griffin).  In 1957 he went to work for Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc. (BBN), a firm specializing in architectural acoustics.  Under Dr. Licklider’s influence, the firm started becoming known for computer consulting.  In 1968, BBN won a bid to supply computers for ARPAnet (Griffin). 

In 1959 he published his first book, Libraries of the Future, where he foresaw library resources shared among many users via a database, and manipulated in ways not possible with printed books.  He recognized his vision was far beyond the capabilities of the day; “Present-day information-processing machinery cannot process usefully the trillions of bits of information in which the body of knowledge is clothed (or hidden), nor can it handle significant subsets efficiently enough to make computer processing of the textual corpus of a field of engineering, for example, useful as a tool in everyday engineering and development.” And he accurately predicted “By the year 2000, information and knowledge may be as important as mobility.”  His ‘procognitive system’ used the same decentralized structure as the Internet (Licklider Libraries of the Future). 

Dr. Licklider also envisioned other forms of input to a computer such as pen and tablet, and discussed the basic principles of human voice recognition, natural language processing, information retrieval and relational database structures (Licklider Libraries of the Future), all technologies used extensively today.  Coming from a psychology background, he was focused on the human side of computing, such as finding faster and more efficient ways to get data into and out of computers, and helping people perform analyses.

Dr. Licklider turned an early minicomputer into the first interactive computer in 1960, paving the way for the entire modern-day field of Human-Computer Interaction.  This event was so significant for him he referred to it often as his “religious conversion to interactive computing” (Rheingold).  His goal for human-computer symbiosis was for the relationship between them to help identify the questions that needed to be answered, not just find the answer for a known question.  To achieve these goals, he discussed Artificial Intelligence, now known by the less spooky name of Data Mining.  In contrast, at that time computers were regarded as calculators or used for rote data processing  (Licklider “Man-Computer Symbiosis”).

In 1962 Dr. Licklider became director of the Information Processing Techniques Office for ARPA, where his ideas for interactive personal level computing with keyboard and screen were supported by the military need for smaller and faster computers (Rheingold).  Connection of many computers in a real-time network gave birth to the ARPAnet, the foundation of today’s Internet (Rappold). 

Dr. Licklider’s 1968 paper “The Computer as a Communications Device” pioneered the concept of computer communities and the field today of socio-technical computing.  These communities differ from normal computing environments “by having a greater degree of open-endedness, by rendering more services, and above all by providing facilities that foster a working sense of community among their users” (Licklider and Taylor).

Dr. Licklider worked at IBM from 1964-67, then returned to MIT from 1968-86, interrupted by a brief stint in Washington DC back at the Information Processing Techniques Office in 1974 (Edmondson-Yurkanan).  He died in 1990 from complications following an asthma attack, at the age of 75 (Rappold), having seen most of his visions become reality.

Works Cited

Edmondson-Yurkanan, Chris. “Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider”.  Austin, TX, N.D. <http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/chris/think/ARPANET/ARPA_People/Licklider.htm&gt;.

Griffin, Scott “Internet Pioneers J.C.R. Licklider “.  N.D. <http://www.ibiblio.org/pioneers/licklider.html&gt;.

Licklider, J.C.R. Libraries of the Future. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965. Print.

Licklider, J.C.R. “Man-Computer Symbiosis.” IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics HFE-1 (March 1960): 4-11. Print.

Licklider, J.C.R., and Robert Taylor. “The Computer as a Communications Device.” Science and Technology 76 (April 1968): 21-31. Print.

Rappold, Raychel. “J. C. R. Licklider “.  N.D. <http://www.cs.rit.edu/~rpretc/imm/project1/biography.html&gt;.

Rheingold, Howard. Tools for Thought the History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology. MIT Press, 2000. Print.


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