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Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

This is a story of a conversation that’s been going on for as long as humans have been human, writes Mark Pesce at Cosmos Weekly.

Bob Taylor had a problem.

The newly-minted head of the innocuously-named but impossibly influential ‘Information Processing Techniques Office’ (IPTO) of DARPA – the ‘advanced research projects agency’ of the US Department of Defense – moved into his Pentagon offices in 1966 to find three computer terminals. “One of them went off to MIT, another to a research lab in Santa Monica, and another to the crew at UC Berkeley. I needed a different machine to talk to each of these groups. And I started to wonder why.”

From its foundation in 1962, the IPTO had lavished the Pentagon’s research budget on a range of ideas at the far edge of computing. Its first director, JCR Licklider, funded efforts to make computing ‘interactive’ – simply put, you should be able to walk up to any computer, anywhere, and immediately be able to make it do your bidding. That basically all computers work this way today is testament to the influence of those early IPTO grants.

Ivan Sutherland, the second director of the IPTO, got his position because – courtesy of a grant from Licklikder – he invented the first truly interactive computer program. ‘Sketchpad’ let users tap a computer display with a mouse-like device known as a ‘light pen’ – then let them draw whatever they liked to that display. Again, basically all computers do this all the time, today.

Sutherland brought a bigger vision to the IPTO: an ‘ultimate display’ that opened the door to 3D graphics, virtual and augmented reality, a spin on computing that put the human in the centre of the action, rather than somewhere out on the periphery. IPTO-sponsored research into ‘human-centred computing’ became central to our entire modern conception of computing.

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