Back in December I wrote a post praising the vision of J.C.R. Licklider, one of the founding fathers of Information Technology. I was specifically praising an article he wrote from 1968 called "The Computer as a Communications Device." Earlier this week I read an even older article of his written in April of 1960.* This article was called "Man-Computer Symbiosis." Once again, I was blown away by this man's ability to see into the future.
Keep in mind that this article was written in 1960, before the Internet, before email, back when the idea of networking computers was just that, an idea, and an idea only to a few people. But 50 years ago, Licklider is describing how computers can make human lives better, and darned if he isn't describing something a whole lot like Google:
Men will...formulate hypotheses. They will ask questions. They will think of mechanisms, procedures, and models. They will remember that such-and-such a person did some possibly relevant work on a topic of interest back in 1947, or at any rate shortly after World War II, and they will have an idea in what journals it might have been published. In general, they will make approximate and fallible, but leading, contributions, and they will define criteria and serve as evaluators, judging the contributions of the equipment and guiding the general line of thought.
That's what humans will do. The computers will do the following:
The information-processing equipment...will answer questions. It will simulate the mechanisms and models, carry out the procedures, and display the results to the operator. It will transform data, plot graphs (“cutting the cake” in whatever way the human operator specifies, or in several alternative ways if the human operator is not sure what he wants)...In general, it will carry out the routinizable, clerical operations that fill the intervals between decisions.
To sum it up, the men will have a vague idea of something and put a question into the computer and the computer will do all of the heavy duty research work and provide a bunch of possible answers, and the human will then choose which is the correct answer. That's Google and other search engines in a nutshell!
Right after the above section Licklider admits that--in 1960--no computer system capable of answering questions in such a fashion existed. But he does go on to explain HOW such a network could be created (Licklider would be instrumental in the creation of the Internet later in the decade), and in the process pretty much describes the commercial Internet as it exists today. He doesn't call it the "Internet"--he calls it a "thinking center," but he definitely has the concept down. He writes the following:
It seems reasonable to envision, for a time 10 or 15 years hence, a “thinking center” that will incorporate the functions of present-day libraries together with anticipated advances in information storage and retrieval and the symbiotic functions suggested earlier in this paper. The picture readily enlarges itself into a network of such centers, connected to one another by wide-band communication lines and to individual users by leased-wire services. In such a system, the speed of the computers would be balanced, and the cost of the gigantic memories and the sophisticated programs would be divided by the number of users.
You can read the entire 1960 article here. It's all pretty insightful stuff when you consider it was written 50 years ago.
J.C.R. Licklider. What a guy! On the other hand, he's the nerdiest hero I've ever had!
*And yes, I AM a nerd, as evidenced by the fact that I was reading this--not for a class or an assignment or anything like that--but for my own personal enjoyment!