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Daniel Rodriguez

J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal: The Story of the Dream Machine

The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal


Imagine a world where computers are not just superfast calculating machines but joyful machines: tools that serve as new media of expression, inspirations to creativity, and gateways to a vast world of online information. Imagine a world where computers are not hidden away in air-conditioned basements but are personal devices that can be carried around and customized by anyone. Imagine a world where computers are not isolated machines but are connected by a global network that enables communication and collaboration across distances and disciplines. Imagine a world where computers are not passive devices but are intelligent agents that can understand natural language, learn from data, and augment human capabilities.


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This may sound like a description of the present day, but it was actually a vision that was conceived more than half a century ago by a visionary psychologist named J.C.R. Licklider. Licklider was one of the most influential figures in the history of computing, yet he is not as well-known as some of his contemporaries such as Alan Turing, John von Neumann, or Steve Jobs. Licklider was not a computer engineer or a mathematician; he was a humanist who saw computers as extensions of human minds. He was not a inventor or a entrepreneur; he was a catalyst who enabled others to invent and create. He was not a leader or a manager; he was a facilitator who fostered a culture of collaboration and innovation.

In this article, we will explore the life and work of J.C.R. Licklider, who is widely regarded as the father of personal computing, the internet, and artificial intelligence. We will trace his journey from his early years as a student and researcher in psychology and cybernetics, to his pivotal role as the director of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), to his later years as a professor and mentor at MIT and BBN. We will see how he shaped the field of computing with his vision of human-computer symbiosis, his funding of groundbreaking research projects, and his influence on generations of computer scientists. We will also see how he faced challenges and limitations in realizing his vision, and what we can learn from his insights and lessons for the future of computing.

The Early Years

Licklider's background and education

J.C.R. Licklider was born on March 11, 1915, in St. Louis, Missouri. His full name was Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, but he preferred to be called Lick. He was the only child of Joseph Parron Licklider, a Baptist minister, and Margaret Robnett Licklider, a schoolteacher. He grew up in a modest but supportive family that encouraged his curiosity and creativity. He was interested in science and technology from an early age, and enjoyed reading magazines such as Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. He also liked to tinker with radios, telephones, and other gadgets.

Licklider attended Washington University in St. Louis, where he majored in physics, mathematics, and psychology. He was fascinated by the emerging field of cybernetics, which studied the principles of communication and control in machines and living systems. He was especially influenced by the work of Norbert Wiener, who coined the term cybernetics and wrote the seminal book Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Licklider decided to pursue a career in psychology, which he saw as a way to understand the human mind as a complex system.

Licklider received his Ph.D. in psychoacoustics from the University of Rochester in 1942. Psychoacoustics is the branch of psychology that studies how humans perceive sound. Licklider's dissertation was on the effects of noise on speech perception, which had practical applications for improving telephone communication during World War II. He developed mathematical models and experimental methods to measure how different factors such as frequency, intensity, duration, and masking affect the intelligibility of speech sounds.

Licklider's career at MIT and Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN)

After graduating from Rochester, Licklider joined the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory at Harvard University, where he continued his research on speech perception and communication. He also collaborated with other researchers such as Leo Beranek, who was working on acoustical engineering at MIT. In 1946, Licklider moved to MIT as a research associate at the Acoustics Laboratory, where he worked on projects related to sound localization, hearing aids, and speech synthesis.

In 1950, Licklider joined Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), a new company founded by Leo Beranek and Richard Bolt that specialized in acoustical consulting and research. Licklider became the head of the Psycho-Acoustics Research Group at BBN, where he led a team of psychologists, engineers, and mathematicians who worked on various problems related to sound and communication. One of their main projects was to develop a system for automatic speech recognition, which was funded by the Air Force. Licklider also became interested in information theory, which was developed by Claude Shannon at Bell Labs as a way to measure the amount of information that can be transmitted over a noisy channel.

Licklider's work at BBN exposed him to the world of computing, which was still in its infancy at that time. He learned how to program an IBM 650 computer, which was one of the first mass-produced computers that used magnetic drums for memory. He also interacted with other pioneers of computing such as John von Neumann, who designed the architecture of stored-program computers; Marvin Minsky, who founded the field of artificial intelligence; and John McCarthy, who invented the programming language Lisp. Licklider became fascinated by the potential of computers as tools for processing information and enhancing human capabilities.

The ARPA Years

Licklider's role as the director of IPTO

In 1962, Licklider received an offer from Jack Ruina, who was the director of ARPA (later renamed DARPA), which was a new agency created by President Eisenhower to fund advanced research projects for national defense. Ruina wanted Licklider to head a new office within ARPA called the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO), which would focus on computer research. Licklider accepted the offer and became the first director of IPTO in October 71b2f0854b

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