The project succeeded. Although high-flying, fast-moving ICBMs had made the air-defense system obsolete by the time it was finally deployed in 1958, SAGE nevertheless served as a model for the interactive, real-time computers that followed-including modern personal computers. Lick headed SAGE’s human-factors team, and he saw the project as an example of how machines and humans could work in partnership. Without computers, humans couldn’t begin to integrate all that radar information. Without humans, computers couldn’t recognize the significance of that information, or make decisions. But together-ah yes, together…
By 1957, the year he left MIT for the nearby consulting firm Bolt Beranek and Newman, that train of thought was leading Lick down strange new paths. That spring and summer, he kept track of what he actually did during the day-with shocking results. “About 85 percent of my ‘thinking’ time was spent getting into a position to think, to make a decision, to learn something I needed to know,” he later wrote. He concluded that his decisions on what work to attempt “were determined to an embarrassingly great extent by considerations of clerical feasibility, not intellectual capability.”
Computers, he believed, would rescue the human mind from its enslavement by mundane detail. Human and machine were destined to unite in an almost mystical partnership, with computers handling rote algorithms while people provided the creative impulses. The hope, he said, was that “the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has every thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.” Lick found this vision of human-computer symbiosis so compelling that standard psychology could no longer compete. “Any psychologist is crazy to keep on working with people if he has access to a computer,” he said, only partly in jest.
And so he switched fields. In a 1960 paper called “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” published in the IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, Licklider formulated a new vision of computing. He described a machine that humans could relate to in the manner of “a colleague whose competence supplements your own”-a friend who could help when the problems got too hard to think through in advance. Such problems “would be easier to solve,” he wrote, “and they could be solved faster, through an intuitively guided trial-and-error procedure in which the computer cooperated, turning up flaws in the reasoning or revealing unexpected turns in the solution.”
Much easier said than done. Real-time computers were still a rarity in 1960, and far too expensive for individual use. Therefore, Lick concluded, the most efficient way to use this technology was to have the computer “divide its time among many users.” This was not an original idea; such “time-sharing systems” were already under development at MIT and elsewhere. But Lick, never one to hold his imagination in check, followed that notion to its logical conclusion: He described an online “thinking center” that would “incorporate the functions of present-day libraries.” He foresaw “a network of such centers, connected to one another by wide-band communications lines and to individual users by leased-wire services.” Any similarity to today’s Internet is not a coincidence. (To read Licklider’s seminal paper, go to www.memex.org/licklider.html.)
Networks would allow computers to communicate with one another. But Lick also saw a desperate need for better ways for humans to interact with computers. Punch cards and printouts were, he wrote, hopelessly impoverished relative to human communication via sight, sound, touch and even body language. His proposed solution: a desk-sized console that would function much like today’s personal computer, equipped with voice and handwriting recognition. He described a display surface “approaching the flexibility and convenience of the pencil and doodle pad or the chalk and blackboard.”
Lick pointed out the need for reference works distributed via cheap, mass-produced “published memory” (think CD-ROM); data storage that could access items by content, and not just by names or keywords (still difficult); and languages that would allow you to instruct the computer by giving it goals, instead of step-by-step procedures (even more difficult.) He also revealed his mixed feelings about artificial intelligence, then in its infancy. He saw it as being potentially very useful-but knew far too much about the brain and its complexities to believe that computers would soon be surpassing humans.
Although Licklider’s ideas were little more than visions in the late 1950s, technology was beginning to catch up. In the spring of 1960, a struggling young company called Digital Equipment Corp. introduced its first computer, the PDP-1. It was a real-time, interactive machine, and it came with a built-in display screen. It was the perfect machine for Lick to try to implement the research agenda laid out in “Symbiosis.” He and his team bought the display model off the exhibit floor for $120,000 (enough to make the BBN higher-ups blanch) and plunged in. They programmed their PDP-1 for some of the first experiments with educational software, including a language vocabulary drill written by Lick himself. They experimented with online search and data retrieval. They even worked on time-sharing-although the PDP-1, whose horsepower was roughly that of the original Radio Shack TRS-80, didn’t have much to share.