Thursday, September 24, 2009

Douglas Engelbart: Augmenting Human Intellect and Bootstrapping

The Roaring Twenties witnessed fast economic growth until the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Before finally bottoming out in 1932, the Dow Jones Industrial Average would lose 89% of its value.1 Growing up during this time period meant a more simplified view of one’s needs. This led to a definitive moment that occurred in Douglas Engelbart’s life when he was just 25 years old. During the December of 1950, after taking stock of his current life, with his job at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, and figuring out that he had achieved the goals he had set forth as a kid growing up during the Great Depression to “get an education, get a steady job, get married”, he discovered that he “no longer had any goals.”2 On a drive through Northern California, being an electrical engineer at Ames Research, he actually calculated that he had roughly 5.5 million more minutes to work during his life. He had to figure out what to do with this precious time.
With no particular designs on getting rich or changing careers, he though about saving the world. And while pondering about how to fulfill this need after several months he came up with the following insight:
FLASH-1: The difficulty of mankind’s problems was increasing at a greater rate than our ability to cope. (We are in trouble.)
FLASH-2: Boosting mankind’s ability to deal with complex, urgent problems would be an attractive candidate as an arena in which a young person might try to “make the most difference.” (Yes, but there’s that question of what does the young electrical engineer do about it? Retread for a role as educator, research psychologist, legislator...? Is there any handle there that an electrical engineer could...?
FLASH-3: Aha - graphic vision surges forth of me sitting at a large CRT console, working in ways that are rapidly evolving in front of my eyes (beginning from memories of the radar-screen consoles I used to service.)3
After working through some details regarding the implementation of such a device where a “general-purpose, computer-powered information environment”4 would assist with network-based collaborations between colleagues, he dubbed this new route in his career “augmenting the human intellect.” However, it wouldn’t be so easy to get others to share in his vision or to provide funding for this lofty endeavor.
Within the context of 1950’s technological ability, this vision still seemed unattainable to others in his department or in the business world. Afterall, the leading edge in technology was the IBM 704, capable of executing up to 40,000 instructions per second. So instead of developing the idea of augmenting human intellect for his PhD, he wrote his dissertation on bi-stable gaseous plasma digital devices. After graduating, he tried to find a more “congenial” environment for his augmentation work, but found out that he had to subsume his intentions even at the Stanford Research Institute where he began working in October 1957.
When he was finally able to work on augmentation in 1959 after receiving funding from the Air Force’s Office of Scientific Research, it was difficult to get intellectual backing for his project because he had to place his augmentation research squarely in the realm of other’s disciplines in order for them to be responsive to his message. In general, his augmentation environment was written off “as just another information-retrieval system.” So, in order to be taken more seriously, he decided to create a manifesto, taking him almost two years to write.
“Augmenting the Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” was finished in 1962. Engelbart believed technology could augment human intellect by developing “an integrated hierarchy of cooperative mancomputer process capabilities.” This would “step-up” the mental abilities of a person level by level to be able to handle more complex thought processes. He also explains that, “We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human ‘feel for a situation’ usefully coexist with powerful concepts, streamlined technologies and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.”5
In his paper, Engelbart writes that two people during the previous two decades had “speculated upon the possibilities of close manmachine cooperation.” Those influences were Vannevar Bush and J.C.R. Licklider. Bush coined the term Memex to describe a system where items were categorized by associative indexing and then searched for using a specialized workstation. Licklider (1960) defined a concept called “man-computer symbiosis”, a system whereby humans and computers work in conjunction to “think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.”6 Engelbart also placed his aspirations within the context of work being done by Vazsonyi, Morse, Teager, Culler and Huff. One amongst his list would prove to be a powerful supporter and ally.
While Engelbart attempted to figure out how human beings have so far evolved to deal with complex situations, he tried to receive funding from various sources. His proposal for creating an “interdisciplinary Knowledge Augmentation Laboratory that could pursue the technology of human augmentation as quickly as possible”7 finally came across the desk of J.C.R. Licklider at ARPA.
By 1963, Engelbart had funding. Later he would explain, “Lick was the first person to believe in me. And he was the first person to stick his neck out and give me a chance. In fact, if he hadn’t done that, if he hadn’t stuck his neck out and given me money, I don’t think anybody ever would have done so. That was why I trusted him. Lick was like my big brother.”8
While working towards augmenting human intellect, he would invent the mouse, work on “hypertext systems as part of the NLS” (oNLine System), and work towards his “vision for a personal workstation that can legitimately be thought of as one of the sources of ideas for the personal computer.”9
The NLS was first publicly demonstrated at the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference during a 90-minute multimedia presentation where Engelbart debuted the mouse, hypermedia, and on-screen video teleconferencing. In 1989 he founded the Bootstrap Institute, with its main focus being to create high-performance organizations that include “pro-active participation from stakeholders” in all realms of influence including government, industry, and society.
Engelbart, with his evolving pursuits, realizes that with the quick development of technology coming to surpass the development of human intellect, certain adjustments must be made. As the sophistication of technology increases, society has to continually revise it’s methods of information appropriation to accommodate these changes. Engelbart (1998) has conceded this need for modification in the following quote:
Real social danger today is that the technology is erupting and moving so much faster than it ever ever ever has in all of our historical experience ... [It’s] time to start adapting society to this revolution in the technology. There’s a lot of potential dangers ahead if we don’t adapt it successfully.10
Stated more succinctly as the Law of Disruption, Downes and Mui in Unleashing the Killer App (2000) write that “[s]ocial, political and economic systems change incrementally, but technology changes exponentially.”11
The bootstrapping approach is being developed upon currently by the Doug Engelbart Institute. Additionally, in 2005 Engelbart received funding for the HyperScope project from the National Science Foundation. Once again, we find that time often leads to newer technology that is more easily capable of achieving previously stated goals. In this case, Hyperscope uses Ajax and DHTML to recreate the abilities of the NLS and the renamed software Augment that can link within and across documents in order to “engage a wider community in a dialogue of collaborative software and services.”12
Augmenting human intellect as a theory and aspiration has itself been further augmented to suggest that all facets of society must come together and work towards a common goal. As coined by Engelbart, organizations can improve the process they use for improvement, thereby iteratively compounding the effect. As a goal for HCI, iterative progress towards making information more usable, intuitive, and effective would be the perfect compliment to Engelbart’s dream. It seems that intellect’s final compatriots would be responsibility and compassion, and if this has not yet been addressed, perhaps it will be in the next iteration.
--Christine Rosakranse, for Comm-6480

1 "Wall Street Crash of 1929." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 20 Sep 2009, 16:26 UTC. 20 Sep 2009
2 Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal. New York: The Penguin Group. 2001. pg. 211.
3 Waldrop, M. Mitchell, The Dream Machine. pgs, 211-212
4 Waldrop, M. Mitchell, The Dream Machine. pgs, 212
5 Engelbart, Douglas C. Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. Summary Report AFOSR-3223 under Contract AF 49(638)-1024, SRI Project 3578 for Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Stanford Research Institute, Menlo Park, Ca., October 1962.
6 Jacko, Julie A., and Andrew Sears, eds. The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. (2003) pg. 3.
7 Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine. pg. 216.
8 Waldrop, M. Mitchell, The Dream Machine. pgs, 217.
9 Jacko, Julie A., and Andrew Sears, eds. The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. (2003) pg. 5
10 Brown, John Seely and Duguid, Paul. The Social Life of Information. pg. 84 (Engelbart, interviewed on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, 11 December 1998)
11 Downes, Larry, and Chunka Mui. 2000 Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Domination. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
12 "Douglas Engelbart." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 22 Sep 2009, 00:43 UTC. 22 Sep 2009 

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