Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Who Is This "Licklider" Guy?

Who are they talking about? Why haven't I ever heard of him?

I was at SRI, a research institute by the Stanford campus. Around me was a lively group of some of the best minds in Computer Science, some of them have had their PhDs in the field for 40 years. I had the honor of being the least credentialed person in the room. As I listened to some of the discussions, I noticed that they seemed to keep bringing up the name "Licklider." Sometimes they'd just call him "Lick." Other times they'd mention projects along with his name that I hadn't heard about before like "Project MAC." Since the guys talked so much about him, I knew I had to find out more about who this "Lick" guy was. One of them suggested that I read the book "The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal" by M. Mitchell Waldrop.

My local library had the book. I was a bit worried when I saw that it hadn't been checked out for three years. "Hmm... maybe it's not that good?" I thought.

I was pleasantly surprised.

At about 500 pages, it's not a small book. Fortunately, I was able to finish it just before the library forced me to return it since I hit the maximum amount of renewals on it.

The book put me on a journey that filled in a lot of details about computing history that I didn't even know I was clueless about while weaving a story about a man from Missouri. Although his full name was Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, just about everyone called him "Lick," a name he acquired in his fraternity days.

Lick's story is bigger than just one guy. It's a story that goes back to the dawn of computing right up to the personal computer. While reading the book, I had a lot of "Aha!" moments that helped fill me into the colorful history of computing. For example, I had heard a lot about DEC's PDP system, but it was interesting to know that they were specifically called "Programmed Data Processors" instead of "computers" because congress was pressured not to spend any more money on computers at the time. By itself, facts like these seem to be obscure trivia, but when you read about the politics of funding at the time, you can really understand that DEC had few alternatives.

I can't recall ever hearing Licklider's name before that meeting at SRI, but that's probably because I didn't try too hard. As a kid interested in computers growing up in the 1990's, I really focused my attention on learning about one person - Bill Gates. I read several books about him and had a reasonably good idea of his background and the history of Traf-O-Data, Microsoft and some of its products like BASIC, DOS, OS/2, Windows, and NT. Perhaps in the back of my mind I thought that learning about him would me emulate his success and make me millionsbillions. Too bad that didn't work out.

In addition to the books, my other major source of information was when I watched Bob Cringely's Triumph of the Nerds on PBS in the summer before I started high school. In hindsight, after reading this book I really wish I would have watched the 1998 follow-on to the series called "Nerds 2.01: A Brief History of the Internet." I would have at least heard about Licklider and the computing days before Microsoft and Apple and not been so clueless back at that room in SRI.

What a story it is! It's not really just about Lick; it's about how he helped build a community that fostered the explosive computing growth in the 1960's right through the 70's and 80's.

Since I like to ask others what stuck out in books that they've read, I thought I'd share some things I found interesting:

22 Days of Beeps Can Change a Nation

Chapter 6 opens on a rocket launch pad in the early morning of October 1957 at a top secret Soviet Union location. When the rocket took off and deployed its payload, the world came to know Sputnik by its incessant beep beep beep transmissions.

Waldrop quotes this account:

"[Sputnik's] two transmitters would fail twenty-three days after launch - but their arrogant beeping would continue to sound in the American memory for years to come... Gone forever in this country was the myth of American superiority in all things technical and scientific." (p. 197)

Although the U.S. had rockets under development that were more sophisticated than the Soviet ones, it was a huge blow to American pride and there was a large public outcry. Everyone made the connection: if the Soviets could launch a satellite into space, they could probably launch a missile into any major U.S. city.

One famous result of this perceived threat was President Eisenhower's endorsement of "a plan to consolidate all the Pentagon's space research under a new civilian agency reporting directly to the secretary of defense. It would be called the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA."

Well it didn't quite work out exactly as planned.

Before ARPA opened for business, it had already been split up. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would handle all the non-military space projects and the services would get a large amount their funding back to handle most of their development projects. This left ARPA with "the kind of beyond-the-cutting-edge stuff that the services were willing to do without." (p. 198)

ARPA wasn't initially interested in computers. To them, they were really only helpful for things like accounting and payroll. This changed when ARPA was tasked to research new command and control ideas that would require a lot of data processing. This seemed like an ideal fit for computers. Licklider was asked to come over to ARPA and lead the new project.

He didn't want to take the job at first. He was already doing interesting things with computers and was so busy working on fleshing out his ideas of computer assisted "libraries of the future" to even think about burying himself in "the bureaucratic limbo of Washington." (p. 201)

Once he warmed up to the idea of going to ARPA, he began thinking that the command and control concept was ultimately a man-machine symbiosis, something he had been thinking about for years.

In March of 1960, he published his famous "Man-Computer Symbiosis" which began:

"The fig tree is pollinated only by the insect Blastophaga grossorun. 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."

This might not seem radical in 2008, but it was revolutionary back in the 1960's when most people could only think of computers as batch processing machines. Lick saw computers in a symbiosis where humans could do the thinking and the machines would do the "algorithmic chores they were so good at" (p.148). In order to find out how much of a benefit they'd be, he did an experiment on himself and found to his horror that he spent 85% of his time just "getting into a position to think, to make a decision, to learn something I needed to know." The rest of the time was just clerical or mechanical. Computers would be a perfect fit to handle all the dreary stuff that got in the way of real thinking.

Lick knew that he could start making the man-computer symbiosis concept real and get the government to pay for it through his association with ARPA. Lick's view was "that the problems of command and control were essentially problems of man-computer interaction. I thought it was just ridiculous having command-and-control systems based on batch processing. Who can direct a battle when he's got to write a program in the middle of a battle?" (p. 202)

On the next page we see:

"Improbably, miraculously, through some once-in-a-lifetime alignment of all the right planets, ARPA was offering him a chance to turn his vision into a reality. He could reinvent the whole field of computing. He could transform those giant calculating machines into full-fledged partners in a human creativity. He could create 'information utilities' that spanned the continent. He could democratize information by opening up vast libraries of material to instant access by anyone. And he could do it all with the Pentagon's money." (p. 203)

And boy did he ever:

"[The professional bureaucrats] had a history of giving grants to individual people in twenty-thousand-dollar chunks. But Lick was talking about millions of dollars and whole teams of people. It was as though these folks had encountered this alien creature: friendly, but strange." (p. 206)

In addition to funding research organizations like SDC, RAND, and SRI, Lick is remembered for helping fund the new computer science departments at Berkeley, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and perhaps most famously, MIT. Lick's funding at MIT went towards a system that would put together several foundational ideas needed for his man-computer symbiosis. The goal was "Machine-Aided-Cognition," but since computer time was hard to come by and they had to invent a lot of the concepts for time-sharing to allow multiple people to access a computer at once, the project also went by the name "Multiple Access Computer." Regardless of which one you chose, the acronym was the same.

"So that's the Project MAC the folks in the room were talking about," I thought as I read about it.

Project MAC would lay a lot of the foundations for modern operating systems. Examples include technologies like multitasking and file systems to policies such as regular backups to protect themselves from their mistakes. They had to introduce passwords to stop some people from stealing computer time as well as ideas from unpublished academic papers. Unix and the C language it was written in was an offshoot of this project as an attempt to write a simpler version than what the Project MAC team was trying to accomplish.

And yet, Project MAC was just one of the many projects that Lick was funding and tracking. To the outside observer, all of the projects seemed like an ad hoc mess rather than a carefully crafted plan. Lick knew that his man-computer symbiosis dream would need to be maintained by more than just him. Waldrop writes:

"Lick realized, if this vision was ever going to outlast his tenure at ARPA, he would somehow have to forge all these groups into a self-reinforcing, self-sustaining community." (p. 225)

One such example of how he did this was his famous 1963 memo which began: "[to the] Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network." In his mind, Lick was referring to a human network. He continued: "It is evident that we have among us a collection of individual (personal and/or organizational) aspirations, efforts, activities, and projects." The challenge now was to exploit "the possibilities for mutual advantage". He went on to describe a connected system that would keep all the research projects together, a network focused on human thoughts but connected by wires. In essence, the early signs of the Internet.

But it took some time to materialize and didn't happen during Lick's ARPA tenure.

He did make progress. Due to the computing focus that Lick had caused, his ARPA division was given the title "Information Processing Techniques Office" (IPTO). After his two year tenure at ARPA, Lick handed the reins over to a young Ivan Sutherland (creator of Sketchpad, which launched the field computer graphics and computer aided design). When Sutherland finished his tenure, Bob Taylor would take over and proceed to actually make Lick's "Intergalactic Network" of people a real physical thing by linking ARPA people together into ARPANET, the direct predecessor of the Internet.

The first message went across it at 10:30 PM on October 29, 1969.

Two interesting things from the book stand out right around this period of time. The first was that the height of the Vietnam War was taking a huge toll on the nation, both in terms of people and dollars. In a reported attempt to limit spending on the war, Montana senator Mike Mansfield proposed an amendment that would prevent the Defense Department from "[carrying] out any research project or study unless such project or study has a direct and apparent relationship to a specific military function."

The practical effect of the "Mansfield Amendment" was that it diverted a large percentage of people's time into writing how their project had a "direct and apparent" relevancy. It's also one of the largest reasons why ARPA is now known as DARPA:

"In retrospect, moreover, [the Mansfield Amendment] came to be seen as the symbolic watershed for ARPA, the point at which it started its downhill slide from being a cutting-edge agency that was blessedly free to take risks to being an ordinary agency that was cautious and risk-averse." (p. 395)

The second big thing was that in May of 1969, Xerox was making a lot of money selling copiers. But their management knew they had to be more than a one product company. In an attempt to branch out and "go digital," they purchased Scientific Data Systems (SDS). However, they had a problem: the company was largely computer illiterate. They needed to go out and recruit the best computer people the world had. One of their first hires was none other than former ARPA IPTO director Bob Taylor. Taylor would go on to attract many from Lick's "Intergalactic Network" ARPA community who had been distressed by the Mansfield Amendment and its research cutting implications.

The resulting Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was the place to be in the 1970's. It fostered freedom to explore ideas just like the early ARPA days since its backers were willing to invest in long-term innovation. Its anti-corporate culture included meetings filled with beanbag chairs which prevented people from leaping out of their chair to argue with someone. This 'helped' you hear them out. PARC would go on to create the foundations of personal computing as we know it with their Alto personal computer which was named after the city they were in. The Alto had new ideas like bitmapped displays, windows, an Ethernet network, WYSIWYG word processing, laser printing, and roots of modern object oriented programming. Unfortunately, Xerox's management didn't quite understand the business value of what their PARC guys were creating. Additionally, the guys inside PARC had a hard time creating a clear path and business model for getting their ideas to market. There was one notable exception. Waldrop writes:

"If [Jack Goldman] hadn't thrown a tantrum [in order to get the business guys to listen], they might just have rejected the laser printer itself - the one PARC-bred product that would eventually earn billions for Xerox and repay its investment in PARC many times over." (p. 392)

Steve Jobs, along with some other engineers, would visit PARC in December of 1979 for a demonstration of the Alto system. Jobs was so enamored by the graphical interface that he saw that he didn't even explore the object oriented programming and networking ideas. During the visit, Jobs reportedly exclaimed "Why hasn't this company brought this to market?" (p. 443) He didn't wait around for Xerox. Apple's first graphical computer, "Lisa," 'borrowed' several ideas from the Alto. When the Lisa and IBM PC hit the market in the early 80's, the guys inside PARC realized that Xerox had blown a huge opportunity. Many jumped ship. One example was Charles Simonyi, who took his ideas Bravo word processing ideas north to a relatively new company in Washington named Microsoft. It was a huge difference in culture. Simonyi's commented on the contrast:

"It was like going into the graveyard or retirement home before going into the maternity ward. You could see that Microsoft could do things one hundred times faster, literally, I'm not kidding. Six years from that point, we overtook Xerox in market valuation." (p. 449)

And that brought me full circle back to the pop culture history I was more familiar with. Throughout the years Lick would stay involved in some part with the research community, sometimes getting bogged down with management tasks which he despised. He would teach at MIT through the 80s with students that would only later realize all that he had done. Failing health caused him to pass away at the age of 75 on June 26, 1990: just before the world at large would come to use the "Intergalactic Network."

Lick was known for being quite modest about his contributions, often minimizing his role. When asked about what he did, he said:

"I think that I found a lot of bright people and got them working in this area. I got it moving. [And it was] a fantastic community. I guess that's the word. It was more than just a collection of bright people. It was a thing that organized itself into a community, so that there was some competition and some cooperation, and it resulted in the emergence of a field." (p. 258)

So that's why they kept talking about him. Now I get it.

Lick organized a community that would change the computing world. He realized that it's ultimately the people that matter. I think that our industry puts too much emphasis on technology and tends to marginalize people. I think that one of the first steps to reverse this trend is to understand the contributions of its founders like Lick.

"The Dream Machine" was a good book. I recommend it to anyone who might be curious about what happened in computing before the Microsoft, Apple, and especially Google days. From the early days of Von Neumann and Turing, right up to the 90's, Waldrop's detailed research helped the story come alive. The book appears to be out of print, but it is well worth a visit to your library or getting a used copy.

If you made it this far, I'd really love to hear your comments on a few related questions:

  • Had you heard of Licklider before? If so, where? What sticks out in your mind about Lick?
  • What do you think about Lick's funding and management strategy in the early days of ARPA's IPTO?
  • What do you think of Lick's comparison of the Fig Wasp and Fig Tree to a man-computer relationship? Do you think we've obtained the man-computer symbiosis he was referring to?
  • What about PARC? It could still be considered success since the laser printer paid for Xerox's investment in it. However, as Steve Jobs points out, they could have been the IBM of the 90's but blew their chance. What do you think?
  • What do you think about the Mansfield Amendment of the 1970 fiscal year? It's easy to criticize things in hindsight. If it was 1969 and you didn't know the future, which side would you have honestly taken? How would you have defended your position?
  • If you read this book or similar books, what is most memorable to you about the period from the 1930's through the late 80's that you think most people don't know about?