March 11, 2013
The chaotic usefulness of interconnected computers sharing communications protocols that we collectively know as the Internet traces its semantic roots not to Tennessee’s Albert Gore Jr., but to a psychoacoustic researcher turned computer scientist, Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, who envisioned both a “galactic network” of computers and the kinds of interactive computers we use today in the early 1960s.
Licklider, son of a Baptist minister, was born in St. Louis on Mar. 11, 1915, and majored in physics, mathematics and psychology at Washington University in his hometown, where he also received a masters in psychology. He got a doctorate in psychoacoustics, the study of how sound is perceived, physiologically and psychologically, from the University of Rochester in 1942. He was a researcher at Harvard’s Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory from 1943 to 1950, when his interests turned to the nascent field of information technology. He moved to the MIT as a faculty member, where he created a psychology program for engineering students and helped establish the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, which does research for the U.S. Defense Department.
He worked on the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) project that established the automated air defense network for North America. The SAGE system computers supplied data to human operators, who were responsible for determining the appropriate response. Licklider’s role in the project was as the human factors expert, a position that introduced him to the need and potential for human/computer interfaces.
In 1960, he wrote “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” the paper that many technology historians consider the genesis of the ideas that became the Internet. He wrote, “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.”
He did not envision that this symbiosis would result in computers taking over, "Men will set the goals, formulate the hypotheses, determine the criteria, and perform the evaluations. Computing machines will do the routinizable work that must be done to prepare the way for insights and decisions in technical and scientific thinking."
In October 1962 he was tapped to head a new department for the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Defense Department called Information Processing Techniques Office. The next year, he became Director of Behavioral Command and Control Research for ARPA, and convened a conference that Spring for “For Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network.”
Licklider left ARPA to head up MIT’s research in artificial intelligence, but his vision was implemented as ARPAnet, the first iteration of what became the Internet.
He died on June 26, 1990.