Mind Meets Machine
Such modesty was bred into Licklider at an early age. Back in St. Louis, where he was born in 1915, a self-satisfied man was said to have too much “side”-a reference to the fatty flanks of a hog. And little Robnett, as Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider was known as a boy, had been raised to think “side” was unseemly. Every evening from the time he was 5, it had been his duty and honor to take the arm of his maiden aunt, escort her to the dinner table, and hold out her chair. Even as an adult, Lick was a remarkably courteous man who rarely raised his voice in anger and who found it almost physically impossible to remain seated when a woman entered the room.
A happy, energetic boy with a lively sense of fun, Licklider early on displayed an insatiable curiosity and a love of all things technological-especially cars. At 15, he bought an old junker and took it apart again and again, trying to figure out its inner workings. For years thereafter, he refused to pay more than $50 for a car; whatever shape it was in, he could fix it up and make it go.
At Washington University in St. Louis, he wanted to major in everything-and almost did. He graduated in 1937 with a triple degree in physics, math and psychology, with particular interest in deciphering the ultimate gadget: the brain. For his doctoral dissertation at the University of Rochester, he made the first maps of neural activity on the auditory cortex, pinpointing the regions crucial to our ability to hear musical pitch.
Ironically, this passion for psychology would be central to Lick’s pathbreaking work in computing. Most computer pioneers came to the field in the 1940s and 1950s with backgrounds in math or electrical engineering, leading them to focus on gadgetry: making the machines bigger, faster and more reliable. But Lick’s study of neuroscience left him with a deep scientific appreciation for the human capacity to perceive, to adapt, to make choices, and to create new ways of tackling problems. To Lick, these abilities were every bit as subtle and as worthy of respect as the automated execution of a series of instructions. And that’s why to him, the real challenge would always lie in adapting computers to the humans who use them, exploiting the strengths of each.
Lick’s instincts in this direction were apparent by 1942, when he joined Harvard’s Psycho-Acoustics Laboratory. The Army Air Force was funding a team of psychologists at that lab to attack the problem of noise. The United States had just entered World War II, and aircraft crews were finding it difficult to function amid the overwhelming din of the engines. Lick devised a method for artfully distorting radio transmissions to emphasize consonants over vowels and thus make words stand out against a background of radio static and mechanized cacophony. Already, he was shaping the technology to fit the human, not the reverse.
That sensibility asserted itself even more after 1950, when Lick moved to MIT. Almost immediately, he got caught up in Project SAGE-a crash program to create a computer-based air-defense system against Soviet long-range bombers. The computer in SAGE was Whirlwind, which had been under development at MIT since 1944. Other early computers, such as ENIAC, had started out as giant calculators, with an operating style to match: You entered the numbers and eventually got back a printout with the answer. This came to be known as batch-processing. Whirlwind, by contrast, had started out as a flight simulator and had evolved into the world’s first real-time computer: It would try to respond instantly to whatever the user did at the console. The challenge was to prove that a computer could take the data coming in from a new generation of air-defense radars and display the results rapidly in a meaningful form.