Douglas Engelbart: Augmenting Intelligence

Douglas Engelbart
Douglas Engelbart (Photo credit: nilsohman)

It’s been a week since Doug Engelbart died. You may not know him as well as some of the other pioneers of personal computing, but he was an amazing person by all accounts.

I first learned about his ideas and life story in John Markoff’s excellent 2005 book, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.

In this book, NY Times reporter Markoff describes the competition between two technological world views represented in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early to mid-1960s. Engelbart led the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International), “dedicated to the concept that powerful computing machines would be able to substantially increase the power of the human mind.” Across the Stanford campus, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL), led by John McCarthy, “began with the goal of creating a simulated human intelligence.

“One group,” Markoff wrote, “worked to augment the human mind; the other to replace it.”

Engelbart was originally inspired by Vannevar Bush’s postwar essay, “As We May Think,” that, among other things, described the Memex, envisioned as a really smart piece of office furniture. This article from The Atlantic’s Alexis C. Madrigal tells you a lot about that encounter.

An illustration of Vannevar Bush's Memex, from Life Magazine
An illustration of Vannevar Bush’s Memex, from Life Magazine

At the ARC, Engelbart and his research team put together both concepts and devices that really form the basis of many of the bits that govern our technological lives today. Nearly all of Engelbart’s obituaries included the phrase “Inventor of the Computer Mouse.” But that was certainly not all he did. Take the time to watch what Steven Levy dubbed “The Mother of All Demos,” delivered December 9, 1968. You’ll be amazed, I think.

If you read some of these obits, you may actually conclude that Engelbart’s peaked some 45 years ago. This is not a completely unwarranted conclusion, I’m afraid. I will discuss this further in another post, as this one’s getting a little long. More links next time too!

For now, you can learn a bit more about Engelbart’s legacy in this very sharp piece from Bret Victor.

I got this Engelbart quote from Boing Boing. It’s a fitting epitaph:

“The key thing about all the world’s big problems is that they have to be dealt with collectively. If we don’t get collectively smarter, we’re doomed.” – Douglas Engelbart (1925- 2013)