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Copyright © 1994, Ronald Baecker, Jonathan Grudin, William Buxton, Saul Greenberg. All rights reserved.
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Historical and Intellectual Perspective
When thinking about technology, we tend to anticipate the future and forget the past. Consider today’s graphical user interfaces (GUIs). We know that they are typically patterned after the two innovative systems to be discussed in Case B: the Xerox Star, introduced in 1981, and the Apple Macintosh, introduced in 1984. Yet the groundwork for these systems was laid in the 1960s and 1970s.
In this chapter, we provide an historical perspective, introducing some seminal ideas, contributors, and systems. However, our objective is not a detailed, historically complete recitation of names, places, and dates. Our emphasis is intellectual, with a focus on the history of ideas. Today’s new systems can be traced to the excitement generated by yesterday’s imaginative speculations. Today’s speculative ideas may be the seeds of tomorrow’s systems.
Although the modern digital computer is grounded in ideas developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, important concepts and the technology required to implement the ideas only became available in the 1930s and the 1940s. The initial motivation was to speed the routine and laborious calculations required for ballistic (e.g., artillery) and atomic energy computations.
Perhaps the first person to see beyond these uses and conceive of the computer as a fundamental tool for transforming human thought and human creative activity was Vannevar Bush (1945). In his classic paper, “As We May Think,” he described the increasing difficulty of managing and disseminating the results of research (pp. 101-2):
“Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month’s efforts could be produced on call. Mendel’s concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.
The difficulty seems to be not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present-day interests but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.”
To solve this problem, he sketched the outlines of a device he called the MEMEX (pp. 106-8):
“Consider a future device for individual use which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “MEMEX” will do. A MEMEX is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.
It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.
In one end is the stored material. The matter of bulk is well taken care of by improved microfilm. Only a small part of the interior of the MEMEX is devoted to storage, the rest to mechanism. Yet if the user inserted 5,000 pages of material a day it would take him hundreds of years to fill the repository, so he can be profligate and enter material freely.
Most of the MEMEX contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion. Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place. Business correspondence takes the same path. And there is provision for direct entry. On the top of the MEMEX is a transparent platen. On this are placed longhand notes, photographs, memoranda, all sorts of things. When one is in place, the depression of a lever causes it to be photographed onto the next blank space on a section of the MEMEX film, dry photography being employed.
There is, of course, provision for consultation of the record by the usual scheme of indexing. If the user wishes to consult a certain book, he taps its code on the keyboard, and the title page of the book promptly appears before him, projected onto one of his viewing positions. Frequently used codes are mnemonic, so that he seldom consults his code book; but when he does, a single tap of a key projects it for his use. Moreover, he has supplemental levers. On deflecting one of these levers to the right he runs through the book before him, each page in turn being projected at a speed which just allows a recognizing glance at each. If he deflects it further to the right, he steps through the book ten pages at a time; still further at one hundred pages at a time. Deflection to the left gives him the same control backward.
A special button transfers him immediately to the first page of the index. Any given book of his library can thus be called up and consulted with far greater facility than if it were taken from a shelf. As he has several projection positions, he can leave one item in position while he calls up another. He can add marginal notes and comments, taking advantage of one possible type of dry photography, and it could even be arranged so that he can do this by a stylus scheme, such as is now employed in the telautograph seen in railroad waiting rooms, just as though he had the physical page before him.
All this is conventional, except for the projection forward of present day mechanisms and gadgetry. It affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the MEMEX. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.
When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined. In each code space appears the code word. Out of view, but also in the code space, is inserted a set of dots for photocell viewing; and on each item these dots by their positions designate the index number of the other item.
Thereafter, at any time when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.....
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped in the MEMEX and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.
The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.”
Bush’s vision was remarkable. He foresaw the application of machines to information storage and retrieval, the value of associative indexing, and the multi-media nature of future computer use. He predicted the development of “a machine which types when talked to” and speculated on the possibility of some day establishing a path from the written word to the brain that is “more direct” than the senses—tactile, oral, and visual. With CD technology making a fully digital MEMEX possible and computer networks allowing us to build a distributed MEMEX, Bush’s dream may become a reality.
In the 1950s, others began to see the computer’s potential use as a facilitator of aspects of human creativity and problem solving. Between 1960 and 1965 there was an outpouring of ideas and prototype systems. Much of what has been achieved since then has been to implement and expand these ideas, to convert prototypes to products. What was special about the early 1960s? One factor was the arrival of transistor-based “second-generation” computers in 1958. The use of vacuum-tube computers had been sharply limited by their size, speed, and power requirements, and their maintenance cost. With transistors, the constraints on what could be imagined melted away, a process that accelerated in the mid-1960s as “third-generation” integrated circuit computers began to appear.
One of the most compelling new visions of the computer’s potential was that of J.C.R. Licklider, who conceived (1960) of a synergistic coupling of human and machine capabilities (p. 4):
“The fig tree is pollinated only by the insect Blastophaga grossorum. The larva of the insect lives in the ovary of the fig tree, and there it gets its food. The tree and the insect are thus heavily interdependent: The tree cannot reproduce without the insect; the insect cannot eat without the tree; together, they constitute not only a viable but a productive and thriving partnership. This cooperative “living together in intimate association, or even close union, of two dissimilar organisms” is called symbiosis.
“Man-computer symbiosis” is a subclass of man-machine systems. There are many man-machine systems. At present, however, there are no man-computer symbioses. The purposes of this paper are to present the concept and, hopefully, to foster the development of man-computer symbiosis by analyzing some problems of interaction between men and computing machines, calling attention to applicable principles of man-machine engineering, and pointing out a few questions to which research answers are needed. 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.”
Licklider asserted that the then-current generation of computers failed to facilitate this symbiosis (p. 5):
“Present-day computers are designed primarily to solve preformulated problems.....
However, many problems that can be thought through in advance are very difficult to think through in advance. They would be easier to solve, and they would be solved faster, through an intuitively guided trial-and-error procedure in which the computer cooperates, turning up flaws in the reasoning or revealing unexpected turns in the solution. Other problems simply cannot be formulated without computing-machine aid. Poincare anticipated the frustration of an important group of would-be computer users when he said, “The question is not ‘What is the answer?’ The question is ‘What is the question?’” One of the main aims of man-computer symbiosis is to bring the computing machine effectively into the formulative parts of technical problems.
The other main aim is closely related. It is to bring computing machines effectively into processes of thinking that must go on in “real time,” time that moves too fast to permit using computers in conventional ways. Imagine trying, for example, to direct a battle with the aid of a computer on such a schedule as this. You formulate your problem today. Tomorrow you spend with a programmer. Next week the computer devotes 5 minutes to assembling your program and 47 seconds to calculating the answer to your problem. You get a sheet of paper 20 feet long, full of numbers that, instead of providing a final solution, only suggest a tactic that should be explored by simulation. Obviously, the battle would be over before the second step in it planning was begun. To think in interaction with a computer in the same way that you think with a colleague whose competence supplements your own will require much tighter coupling between man and machine than is suggested by the example and than is possible today.”
Licklider suggested how computers could improve and facilitate thinking and problem-solving (pp. 5-6):
“..... In the spring and summer of 1957, therefore, I tried to keep track of what one moderately technical person actually did during the hours he regarded as devoted to work. Although I was aware of the inadequacy of the sampling, I served as my own subject.
It soon became apparent that the main thing I did was to keep records.....
About 85 per cent of my “thinking” time was spent getting into a position to think, to make a decision, to learn something I needed to know. 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.
Throughout the period I examined, in short, my “thinking” time was devoted mainly to activities that were essentially clerical or mechanical: searching, calculating, plotting, transforming, determining the logical or dynamic consequences of a set of assumptions or hypotheses, preparing the way for a decision or an insight. 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.
The main suggestion conveyed by the findings just described is that the operations that fill most of the time allegedly devoted to technical thinking are operations that can be performed more effectively by machines than by men. 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.”
In a later paper, Licklider and Clark (1962) outline applications of human-computer communication to military command and control, mathematics, programming, war gaming and management gaming, planning and design, education, and scientific research. They report on some early experiments and prototype systems that demonstrate the potential of using computers in these applications. Then, showing remarkable foresight, they list ten problems whose solutions are prerequisites for true human-computer symbiosis. The first five they term “immediate,” the next one “intermediate,” and the last four “long-term”:
• time sharing of computers among many users
• an electronic input-output surface for the display and communication of correlated symbolic and pictorial information (the earlier paper cited this and computer-driven wall displays as essential)
• an interactive, real-time system for information processing and programming
• systems for large scale information storage and retrieval designed to make possible concurrent, cooperative problem solving in many disciplines
• the facilitation of human cooperation in the design and programming of large systems
• combined speech recognition, hand-printed character recognition, and light-pen editing
• natural language understanding, including syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic aspects
• recognition of the speech of arbitrary computer users (the earlier paper stressed a need for automatic speech production, as well)
• the theory of algorithms—discovery, development, and simplification
• heuristic programming.
Time has proven Licklider and Clark to be remarkably accurate. Their immediate goals have been met. But despite some progress, their intermediate and long-term visions remain goals, thirty years later.
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