Licklider, J. C. R., Taylor, Robert, W. "Man-Computer Symbosis" and "The Computer as a Communication Device." August 7, 1990. Link Accessed: 2003-07-08.

Keywords: open network, distributed computing


Dr. Licklider was a visionary in the field of computer science and is often referred to as “The Father of the Internet”. His vision provided a guide for decades of computer research. One of his less known but perhaps most significant accomplishments resulted from his work as the Director of the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA). Licklider is credited with establishing the foundation for graduate education in Computer Science. His ARPA programs provided the research base and funding which enabled U.C. Berkley, CMU, MIT and Stanford to establish Computer Science graduate programs in 1965. Lickliders ARPA programs also led the way to commercial time-sharing systems in the 60’s and networking in the 70’s.

The two papers reviewed here read like old science fiction in which man and machine are one. Licklider envisions a day when man and machine have integrated their positive characteristics in such a way that interactions would be completely complementary. These are important, historical works that foresaw the possibilities and opportunities as well as the potential barriers to computing and telecommunications of the future.

Man-Computer Symbiosis (1960)
J.C.R. Licklider

This paper is based on the work performed by a small research group headed by Dr. Licklider at Bolt, Beranek and Newman -- a company that played a major role in creating the Internet, founded in 1948 as consulting company -- in the late 1950’s.

The purpose this paper is to present the idea and to foster the development of man-computer symbiosis and explore the problems inherent with such interactions. Man-computer symbiosis according to Licklider is a “partnership” of two dissimilar organisms in which man and computers work together in intimate association. He envisions a time when electronic or chemical machines will exceed human brain functionality. The object of the man-computer symbiosis is to incorporate computers into the formulative parts and of technical problems as well as effectively using them as part of the thought process, or the thinking parts of these problems, that must happen in “real time”. His claim being that man-computer symbiosis could facilitate thinking and problem solving in important ways.

Licklider recognized that cost will be a preventative barrier and suggest the use of time-sharing systems that would balance costs and computer memory among users. His vision of the future included “thinking centers” which are networked across “wide-band” (broadband?) communications lines and leased wire services (ISP?), computer programs that connect together (object oriented?), and machines capable of speech recognition.

The Computer as a Communications Device (1968)
J.C.R Licklider and Robert W. Taylor

Prior to the writing of this paper, Licklider and Taylor took part in a meeting in which the participants interacted though a computer. It was working on-line that brought to light the possibilities of markedly improving the effectiveness of communications though the use of computers. In this work, Licklider and Taylor look at the creative aspects of interactive communications through the use of “programmed digital computers” while emphasizing that computers will not solve all communications problems. They recognize that great intellectual and social benefits will come out of the melding of information transmission and information processing technologies.

Licklider and Taylor foresaw distributed computing over telephone lines and the importance of establishing a critical mass to drive the technology forward. The cost of data transmission is cited as being prohibitively expensive and a barrier to entry. Since common carrier services were designed for voice and not digital communications certain incompatibilities made some forms of distributed computing frustrating and diffucult. Common carriers of the day simply did not provide the types of service that would make interactive distributed communication economical. In addition they discuss online communities, open and flexible networks, error detection, security, lack of competition keeping costs too high and even the possibility of a digital divide.