This week in science history: an internet visionary dies

Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, who died on June 26, 1990, helped envision and enable the modern wired world.

A 2015 article in The Boston Globe newspaper says of Licklider: “His fascination with then-nascent digital computing led him to promote time-sharing computer networks and interactive computing, seeding the development of both graphical interfaces and ARPANET [the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network], the precursor to the modern internet.” {%recommended 556%}

In 1968, in a paper titled The Computer as a Communication Device, co-written with Robert Taylor, Licklider said: “In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.”

Licklider, born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1915, came to computer science as a psychologist, with an interest in acoustics and music. The Globe story says much of his research had a military basis, trying to improve radio communications and signal processing, problems that involved basic questions of how humans hear and process sound. 

The Globe says Licklider’s 1951 paper, A Duplex Theory of Pitch Perception, “remains a standard, proposing that the brain’s perception of musical pitch depends on both the cochlea’s ability to measure and transmit sonic frequency, and the nervous system’s ability to auto-correlate – that is, to record and compare samples of that measurement over time. 

“Such models remain crucial to both computerised music analysis and the design of digital audio compression formats; both auto-tune technology and the MP3 can, indirectly, trace their lineage to Licklider’s work.”

In the 1950s, working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s acoustics laboratory, Licklider became involved in a project working with a new computer called Whirlwind, which had started out as a military flight simulator and had evolved into the world’s first real-time computer, according to the website History of Computers. 

“It would try to respond instantly to whatever the user did at the console,” the website authors write. 

“The challenge was to prove that a computer could take the data coming in from a new generation of air-defense radars and display the results rapidly in a meaningful form.”

Licklider saw the project as an example of how machines and humans could work in partnership. 

“Without computers, humans couldn’t begin to integrate all that radar information,” he wrote in 1960. “Without humans, computers couldn’t recognise the significance of that information, or make decisions.”

Licklider envisioned computers as  “time-sharing systems”. It wasn’t an original idea but he further proposed “thinking centres” that would “incorporate the functions of present-day libraries.” 

He proposed “a network of such centres, connected to one another by wide-band communications lines and to individual users by leased-wire service””.

Sound familiar?

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