Licklider, Through a Glass, Darkly

I had occasion, in reading background material for a story on which I’m working, to make the acquaintance this week of J.C.R Licklider’s remarkable 1960 essay Man-Computer Symbiosis. Given that he was peering out in our direction more than four decades ago, it is impressive to reflect today on how much he could see.

There is at once an embarrassing naivet? to Licklider’s words, and a breathtaking sense of the possibility that he saw at a time when surely there was very little on which to base his vision:

The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.

One of Licklider’s central insights comes from a little experiment he did on himself, measuring the time he spent on the various pieces of a “scientific and technical task”. He found that he was spending 85 percent of what he called his “thinking” time spent in the drudgery of manipulating the representations of information on which he needed to act, rather than in the task of actually thinking about and acting on that information:

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.

Licklider’s “thinking time”, he realized, was largely devoted to the mechanical rather than the insightful. “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.” What if computers could be made to handle those mechanical details, freeing him for the intuitive and insightful bits that are uniquely human?

There is here a point where the glass through which Licklider was looking was entirely too dark. He was imagining a computational world in which we learned how to give our machines the flexibility to deal with the myriad varieties of those clerical tasks:

Severe problems are posed by the fact that these operations have to be performed upon diverse variables and in unforeseen and continually changing sequences. If those problems can be solved in such a way as to create a symbiotic relation between a man and a fast information-retrieval and data-processing machine, however, it seems evident that the cooperative interaction would greatly improve the thinking process.

That, we have come to realize, was an impossible goal, so we have instead learned to bend the clerical tasks around the rigid constraints of the software we are able to write. But we have nevertheless been able to write software and build computers that have become useful assistants.