I could write this post praising the idea of man-computer symbiosis as opposed to a terrifying world of artificially intelligent robots.
I could ramble on in awe about how these ahead-of-their-time ideas — not accomplished things but just ideas — are now features of technology that we take for granted every day.
But if we’re being honest, those were not what immediately jumped out at me while reading. I expected to learn about those things, and yes, the details were all interesting. What intrigued me the most, however, were a couple little excerpts that connected with Internet issues still in debate today.
Howard Rheingold ends “Machines to Think With” as follows:
“‘What proportion of the total population will be able to join that community? That’s still the important question,’ Licklider concludes, still not sure whether this new medium will remain the exclusive property of a smaller group who might end up wielding disproportionate power over others by virtue of their access to these tools, or whether it will become the property of the entire culture, like literacy.”
While for the most part Licklider’s technological ideas have already been accomplished, this question is one that I think we are still trying to answer. In a global perspective, we all do not have equal access to the information available by modern technology.
This imbalance is not necessarily due to a hoarding of advanced technology by a small group, but rather different rules for using that technology by various small groups of governing bodies.
What began as a tool to “improve or facilitate thinking and problem solving” turned a battle of rights, privacy and government authority. These first great thinkers wanted a virtual library of endless information at our disposal, but now we argue over the rights of publishing and using such content. Technology that opened a new world of communication is now selective communication with wishes for online privacy. And in a world where this new technology was hoped to help when global problems were growing more complex and pressing, each nation exercises different control over technology, creating a barrier between global society as a whole.
In Rebecca MacKinnon’s video “Let’s Take Back the Internet,” she says:
“Each and every one of us has a vital part to play in building the kind of world in which government and technology serve the world’s people, and not the other way around.”
Based on that statement, she believes this advanced technology is a right. But when it comes to government regulation of the Internet, in most cases it is treated as a privilege. This same question appeared in Licklider and Taylor’s “The Computer as a Communication Device.”
“For the society, the impact will be good or bad, depending mainly on the question: Will ‘to be on line’ be a privilege or a right? If only a favored segment of the population gets a chance to enjoy the advantage of ‘intelligence amplification,’ the network may exaggerate the discontinuity in the spectrum of intellectual opportunity.”
For a timeless question, who knows if there will ever be a universal answer.
J.C.R. Licklider was really thinking ahead of the curve. In Chapter Seven: “Machines to Think With”, Licklider’s work was described as the foundation for “mind amplification”. Similar to Vannevar Bush, Licklider’s goal was to create machines that man could interact with, and would ultimately benefit mankind as a whole. What began as the search for a solution to the overflow of information Licklider was experiencing, evolved into the yearn to create a “general purpose computer created so humans could interact with it.” Licklider wanted to create a thinking center with a computer based system, one that mankind could work with, and instead of a master-slave relationship, form a partnership with, which Licklider believed to be the best arrangement.
When looking at the term “man-computer symbiosis”, I feel it’s important to reference “Tron” (1982), and even “Tron”Legacy” (2010). For those unfamiliar with “Tron”, a software engineer (Jeff Bridges) is transported inside the world of software in a computer system. It’s literally man-computer symbiosis. While this is not what Licklider imagined, “Machines to Think With” did have my mind wandering to “Tron” and how Jeff Bridges worked in a partnership with other programs in the computer system to overthrow another program. Let’s step back into reality and look at the task of information organization as the program that needs to be “overthrown”, or managed. Take the ICOM 210 Blog for example. Here are dozens of students contributing thoughts and information to one source on a weekly basis. That’s dozens, and dozens of ideas and lines of information being created each week. But we’re able to manage this information by “tagging it”, with our last name, or even topic of discussion. This way, we’re able to organize the collective data and reference it when necessary. We provide the tags and the system stores and organizes information based on our tags. This partnership between users and computers allows us to manage information.
Licklider also introduced to the idea to create new ways to stimulate the human brain when he was interested in psychoacoustics. I see Licklider’s ideas and interests manifested when looking at the computer as a medium to share ideas and solutions to the new ways of of attacking “the big problems that would result from our continued existence and growth.” When looking at resources like TED.com, forward-thinking individuals share thoughts, ideas, and educate audiences on solutions to global issues or human/technologic advancement. While these individual talks do stimulate the brain and inspire creativity, it is made possible through a computer. Audiences are not geographically dependent when accessing TED.com. With the help from a computer, mankind has the ability to access this brand of engaging information.
Overall, Licklider had the appropriate idea for the kind of relationship man and computer should share – A partnership. With the assistance of computers, man has the ability to manage the information overflow that troubled Licklider and interact with creative and engaging information which benefits the human brain.
Licklider was surprisingly one of the first people to have the idea of man and machines working in a symbiotic manner. Now to say he was the only visionary would certainly be false, but ‘lick’ for short did express these ideas much more clearly than anyone before him. Lick explains the idea of humans working hand in hand with computers so that ‘we=humans’ can achieve other goals much more quickly. Also to add on to that idea is to be able to think more critically so then we aren’t spending more time trying to figure out setting up procedures. He understands that there are things that computers can do that men cannot but it the same regard ‘we’ can do things that computers cannot. Going on to suggest that there is a possible symbiotic relationship. Computers need not to replace man nor man replace computer…well because man created computer. Lick goes on to explain ideas of how better computing could be possible. His ideas go from areas of computing size, strength, capabilities, problems, speech to text, and so much more. The idea I want to get down to is my view of the symbiotic possibilities.
This idea is a great one because we see it so prevalent in today’s society and Lick saw this way before his time. We have all sorts of connections between man and machine or technology. The reason being is because man created the machine and the machine would not exist it if did not have it’s maker. Why I say this is because there are people out there that believe this relationship can be abused. A great example of this is the movie The Matrix where a man wakes up from a world he thought was real. We he comes to his senses he realizes the world he was apart of was actually built by the very machines that man built. This idea that we become so smart and build machines as smart or smarter to ‘keep up’ that they finally decide to rise against us. Now this idea may seem far fetched but a lot of things in history seemed far fetched, the world being round, man flying, man on the moon, and even more.
The thing we need to understand is that this relationship should continue to be a symbiotic one and not one of having technology or machines do ALL of our bidding. This article I read discusses the idea of how machines are already ‘taking over’ but not to the extent of The Martix. “Are Machines Taking Over Jobs? Could a Robot take over YOUR Job?“, Is a great short read and I recommend watching the video of the assembly line of cars being put together by machines. I believe though that if we are smart enough to create these technologies then certainly we have the ability to control them. I love how in today’s world I can call my mother while Skyping with my sister while Google Chatting with my dad while talking to friends on Facebook. Yes, we are blessed with all of these technologies for a reason and we are the now and today. What we are experiencing is a continual technological revolution and it will only continue to grow and adapt. Just as we humans do as well we will continue to grow and adapt with it.
While the idea of symbiosis still somewhat baffles my mind, it is interesting to contemplate. This cooperative interaction between our computers and us has begun and seems to be in full force. I have always taken for granted the fact that computers were designed. There was distinctive thought and planning involved, showcasing the creative process in every way. We are interacting with our technology in new ways all the time. We carry around Bush’s ideas and interact with Licklider’s products.
It was assumed that computers would be incorporated into modeling and assisting critical thinking. That statement could not have been more prophetic. By facilitating the process of getting into a position to think, we now have more time devoted to formulating ideas and designing. The computer has truly become the mechanically extended man. Relationships can be maintained no matter the distance due to the availability of effective communication. Simply put, symbiosis, as the close togetherness of two dissimilar objects, has become our computers and us.
In Man vs. Human Symbiosis, it is stated that, “In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.” We must remember that this was written in 1990 and that would be 22 years ago. Are we able to communicate more effectively through a machine or are machines helping us to communicate face to face better?
Take a look at our smartphones. On my new IPhone 4 S I am able to FaceTime with anyone else who has an IPhone or Apple product. I could be halfway across the world and I would be able to talk face to face with someone. This is just one of the softwares out there where machines help with face to face conversation.
When I traveled abroad to Europe I was able to chat with my girlfriend and family via Skype. I was able to communicate with my family without having to write a letter or even send an email. This is a perfect example on how machines can help improve face to face communication.
From “Machines to Think With” we saw that Licklider was becoming so wrapped up trying to find a way to make his calculations simpler that he was running out of time to decipher what his calculations meant. Licklider also calculated that 85% of his time was spent preparing to think, not actually digesting thoughts. Is there some way that this process can be easier? The thoughts become easier to find?
The definition of symbiosis is “living in intimate association or even close union, of two dissimilar organisms together.” What does this have to do with anything? Well, in Man Computer Symbiosis the dream that one day “human brains and computing machines will be coupled together… resulting [in a] partnership [that] will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached…”
Humans and computers are becoming more and more involved and some speculate that one day computers may become smarter than us. Here, an estimate is that the computer will match the human brain by 2030 because of the rate in which technology is rapidly changing. I’m not sure we can stop technology from advancing but we can slow it down. The advance of computers has been very helpful however, we wouldn’t want to become slaves to them.
Man-Computer Symbiosis details the path of interaction that will develop over time between humans and computers. The article proposes that “computers will one day perform intellectual operation much more effectively than man alone can perform them.” Today computers do in fact have this power, but we are now aware they are capable of so much more than has yet to be imagined. Computers were accurately described as “mechanically extended man.” This is probably more so true today than ever before. People never go anywhere without a computer attached to themselves.
The first sentence of The Computer as a Communication Device says its all: “In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through
a machine than face to face.” The article mentions that this is a startling thing for most people to expect for the future, but I highly doubt there is anyone today that would be startled to read this prediction. The author predicts the computer “can change the nature and value of communication even more profoundly than did the printing press and the picture tube, for, as we shall show, a well-programmed computer can provide direct access both to informational resources and to the processes for making use of the resources.”
Today people rarely limit technologies potential. In both articles, the authors envisioned a future that became a reality. This makes me excited for the future, but also nervous. Ideas people come up with today are often times impossible to grasp, but if the history of technology reveals anything, it is that anything is possible.