Norbert Wiener, J.C.R. Licklider and the Global Communications Network

In the last quarter of the twentieth century a new global communications 
network emerged with a growing effect on most aspects of human society. 
In the actual events that launched and nourished this network a prominent
role was played by J.C.R. Licklider. He not only envisioned a great leap
for human society based on a tight coupling and networking of people and
computers, he did much to infect others with his early enthusiasm. He
also set in motion a public sponsorship and funding mechanism that
brought the communications network he envisioned into reality. In the 
1960's, Licklider published two seminal articles: "Man Computer 
Symbiosis"(1) in 1960 and "The Computer as a Communications Device"(2) 
written with Robert Taylor in 1968. Looking for the intellectual roots 
of these papers and Licklider's vision, at least one researcher(3) was 
drawn to the work of Norbert Wiener. This paper will look at some of the 
related work of Norbert Wiener and J.C.R. Licklider.

Norbert Wiener began his teaching and research career at MIT in 1919 at
the age of 24. He distinguished himself with original contributions in
mathematics and in the connection of mathematics with physical systems 
as in his study of Brownian motion. Perhaps he is best known for what he 
called "the science of cybernetics or the theory of communication and  
control in the machine and in the living organism."(4) Wiener traces the 
cybernetic synthesis connecting engineering and neurophysiology and his
insights about communication to his work in the 1940's related to
anti-aircraft predictors.

In connection with World War II, Wiener undertook to analyse the problem 
of improving the success of anti-aircraft fire. An anti-aircraft gunner 
must shoot ahead of where his target is at the time of firing. The 
amount and direction ahead must be estimated quickly and accurately. 
Where to aim is based on knowledge of how the plane has been travelling 
and where it is likely to travel in the time the shell takes to reach 
it even if the pilot takes evasive action. Wiener was able to contribute
to the solution of this prediction problem partly because he had previously
developed the equations to be solved when knowledge in one region is used
to predict behavior in another (Hopf-Wiener). Wiener was also familiar with
the work at MIT of Vannevar Bush with analog computers. Putting the pieces
together, Wiener envisioned the direct coupling of anti-aircraft guns with
radar detection and automatic aiming based on his mathematical solution of
the perdiction equation. Motors attached to the gun turrets could position
and aim the gun under the control of data generated by the mathematical
processing of input from radar. In fact, as radar became perfected the
process was mechanized to the point where the human element could be
eliminated from anti-aircraft gun pointing. Wiener reports that his work on
this problem had a profound impact on him.

Up until this work, the servomechnaisms for the control of gun turrets 
were always assumed to belong to power technology rather than 
communications technology. What dawned on Wiener was that the action of 
the motors could be conceived valuably as communicating the aiming 
parameters to the turret and hence that the motors and the computers 
controlling them could be treated as communications devices. Wiener 
wrote that this point of view made him "regard the computer as another 
form of communications apparatus, concerned more with messages than with 
power."(5) In addition Wiener saw a striking analogy between the 
workings of an automatic anti-aircraft system and that of a living 
organism. There was input, processing of that input, and resulting 
response. He began to regard the brain and the nervous system in much 
the same light as a computing machine. Out of such considerations a new 
synthesis emerged which Wiener eventually termed cybernetics (from the 
Greek word for "steersman"). As the communications and engineering 
consequences of Wiener's new ideas were worked out, he began to predict 
that the series of analogies between the human nervous system and the 
computer and control systems would lead to the possibility of a very 
high level of automation.(6)

In 1944 at Princeton University, Wiener gathered a group of neuro-
physiologists, communications engineers, and computing machine people for
an informal session to layout some of his thinking. He found a willingness
on the part of the members of different disciplines to learn what others
were doing and to see the striking similarities. Encouraged by this
gathering, there was support for Wiener to launch two series of similar
interdisciplinary sessions, one in New York City and the other in Cambridge,
MA. He also worked out his new synthesis in, _Cybernetics or Control and
Communication in the Animal and the Machine_ (The Technology Press, 1948;
MIT Press, 1961) and later popularized it in _The Human Use of Human
Beings_ (Houghton Mifflin, 1950).

Wiener's work raised an important question. What should be the relations
between people and machines in the age of automation? He called for an
"independent study of systems involving human and mechanical elements to
decide which functions should properly be assigned to the two agencies,
human and machine."(7) Wiener also worried that automation would lead
society to unbearable unemployment unless it was carefully implemented with
full concern for the working people. Communication was the unifying thread
in Wiener's synthesis. He concluded that "communication is the cement of
society. Society does not consist merely in a multiplicity of individuals
meeting only in personal strife and for the sake of procreation, but in an
intimate interplay of these individuals in a larger organism."(8) It was in
the strenthening of this larger organism via the improvements in
communications that his hope lie that the problems also generated could be
solved. He therefore sought to "bring to the attention of all the
possibilities and the dangers of the new developments."(9)

After WWII, Wiener's ideas began to be known and discussed in scientific 
circles. When asked in an interview in 1988 where his interest in 
digital computers came from, J.C.R. Licklider answered, "There was 
tremendous intellectual fermet in Cambridge after WWII. Norbert Wiener 
ran a weekly circle of 40 or 50 people. . . . I was a faithful adherent 
to that."(10) He added that, even though he was a researcher and faculty 
member at Harvard at the time, he audited a seminar given by Wiener and 
participated in an MIT faculty group that discussed cybernetics. The 
weekly circle launched by Wiener in 1948 that Licklider attended with 
his colleagues Walter Rosenblith and M. Fred Webster was know as the 
seminar on scientific method. Jerome Wiesner, an important scientist 
and president of MIT, provided the following account of it:

  In the winter of 1947, Wiener began to speak about holding 
  a seminar that would bring together the scientists and 
  engineers who were doing work on what he called 
  communications. He was launching his vision of cybernetics 
  in which he regarded signals in any medium, living or 
  artificial, as the same; dependent on their structure and 
  obeying a set of universal laws set out by Shannon. In the 
  spring of 1948, Wiener convened the first of the weekly 
  meetings that was to continue for several years...The 
  first meeting reminded me of the tower of Babel, as 
  engineers, psychologists, philosophers, acousticians, 
  doctors, mathematicians, neurophysiologists, philosophers, 
  and other interested people tried to have their say. After 
  the first meeting, one of us would take the lead each time, 
  giving a brief summary of his research, usually 
  accompanied by a running discussion. As time went on, we 
  came to understand each other's lingo and to understand, and 
  even believe, in Wiener's view of the universal role of 
  communications in the universe. For most of us, these 
  dinners were a seminal experience which introduced us to 
  both a world of new ideas and new friends, many of whom 
  became collaborators in later years."(11)

On the way home from each dinner, Licklider and his friends critiqued 
what had been presented and discussed and shared with each other what 
from their different disciplinary perspectives each had understood.

In 1950 Licklider left Harvard to join the MIT faculty and research 
community of which Wiener was a part. Licklider described himself as "an 
experimental psychologist interested especially in how the brain works 
in conjunction with hearing, but also in speech and communication and 
human engineering."(12) At MIT he participated in two summer studies 
sponsored by military branches which gave him "an opportunity . . . to 
hear of computers and radar sets and communications."(13) His own work, 
very much in the Wiener tradition, was split into psychology, acoustics 
and electronics. His efforts to try to model how the brain works in 
hearing with an analog computer convinced him he really had to learn 
digital computing. Licklider left MIT in 1957 to work at the acoustic 
consulting firm of Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) where he was promised 
access to digital computing. However he maintained his ties with MIT and 
its scientific and technical community and participated with Norbert 
Wiener and others in many important events there.

At BBN, Licklider undertook a little research that was to lead to an 
answer to Wiener's question of the future relation between people and 
computers. Licklider did a mini time-motion study of the activities 
during the hours regarded as devoted to work of a technical person. 
Although he was aware of the inadequacy of the sampling, he wrote, "I 
served as my own subject." He found that 85% or more of his "thinking" 
time was devoted to clerical or mechanical chores: searching, 
calculating, plotting, transforming, determining the dynamic or logical 
consequences of a set of assumptions or hypothesis, preparing the way 
for a decision or insight. Having had the opportunity at BBN to sit at an
interactive computer for 4 or 5 hours on a regular basis, Licklider drew 
the conclusion that it should be possible to create a flexible 
relationship via programming and interface devices between a person and 
a computer so that both could contribute what it does best to the 
accomplishment of mental work. In "Man-Computer Symbiosis", he presented 
his conclusion 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 information handling machines we know 
today." Licklider's vision was different from the computer becoming a 
servant for people or an extension of a person's abilities and different 
from the long range goal of artificial intelligence researchers that the 
computer would one day replace or supercede human thinking. Wiener had 
also forseen a people-computer partnership. For example, Wiener envisioned
a computer programmed to translate from one language to another whose
output would be filtered through a human translation expert. The human 
would make sure that the translation made sense in the final language. 
This expert might then reprogram the computer to do better or devise 
exercises for the computer from which it could learn to make improved 
translations. Licklider was carrying this prediction further by 
suggesting that computers could be involved in the formulation of 
questions and in the process of thinking and working through to their 
solution. The human would handle very low probability situations, 
propose hypotheses, and make unusual connections; the computer would 
convert hypotheses into testable models, retrieve information, create 
simulations, etc. Most of Licklider's article laid out research tasks 
that needed to be accomplished in order for this vision to be realized. 
These included the need to achieve better computer memory capacities, to 
network and internetwork computers, to develop graphical and audio 
interfaces and for languages that facilitated learning by both humans 
and computers. These research tasks were to make up much of the research 
agenda of the newly emerging discipline of computer science. Licklider 
put forward that agenda and then as director of the Information Processing
Technologies Office of the Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA)
fostered it by arranging for its public support and funding.

Besides taking up the question of the human-computer relationship raised 
by Wiener's work, Licklider together with Robert Taylor investigated the 
implications of Wiener's insight that computers were communications 
devices. For Wiener communication was closely linked with control: to 
manufacture a car, for example, people could communicate with a computer 
via programming. The computer could then communicate the motions necessary
to assemble the car to the tools via servomechanisms. The tools in turn
would respond with motion and feedback. This was the automation revolution
which Wiener's experience with the anti-aircraft problem helped him to
foresee. In "The Computer as a Comunications Device", Licklider and Taylor
look for how the computer will help people do more than send and receive
data. Their emphasis was deliberately on people as an advance over the
communications engineer's concern with the transfer of information from one
point to another in codes and signals. They saw the possibility that
communication would be dynamic. "When minds interact new ideas emerge" they
wrote. They saw that the programmed digital computer helped create a medium
that is plastic, can be modeled, where premises could flow into consequenses,
and "above all a common medium that can be contributed to and experimented
with by all. . .  Its presence can change the nature and value of
communication even more profoundly than the printing press and the picture
tube, for ... a well-programmed computer can provide direct access both to
informational resources and to the process for making use of resources."(14)
Licklider and Taylor argued that when information transmission and
information processing are combined and available on networks of computers
cooperation, collaboration and coherence are much more likely to happen 
than among isolated researchers. By making possible quality transmission 
and processing of information among geographically separated people, 
there would follow the creation of communities not of common location but
based on commonality of interest that would be large enough to support
comprehensive accummulations pf people, data and programs. Like Wiener they
saw great benefit to society as a result of the communication revolution
made possible by the digital computer and the global computer network. But
also just as Wiener warned of the danger of unplanned automation, Licklider
and Taylor included in their article a warning:

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 

Licklider and Taylor's article in 1968 ushered in the great experiment 
that began in 1969 as the ARPANET and that we know today as the 

In summary, in the 1940's Norbert Wiener developed a synthesis that stressed
the importance of communications. The ideas and questions raised by him
fueled an intellectual ferment in and around MIT. J.C.R. Licklider and 
other time sharing and networking pioneers took part in that ferment and 
in the intellectual and technical community at MIT which contributed so 
much to the technological developments of the second half of the 
twentieth century. It is not a surprise that there would be a connection
between the the cybernetics sythesis that Wiener introduced and the
contributions of pioneers like Licklider. That a new global communications
network exists today is a tribute to Wiener and to Licklider and the other
pioneers who developed the original insights into a promising advance for
human society.

1) J.C.R. Licklider, "Man-Computer Symbiosis," In IRE Transactions on      
Human Factors in Electronics, Vol HFE-1, March, 1960, Pp. 4-11. 
Also reprinted in In Memoriam: J.C.R. Licklider: 1915-1990, 
Report 61, Systems Research Center, Digital Equipment Corporation, 
Palo Alto, California, August 7, 1990, pp. 1-19.

2) J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Taylor, "The Computer as a Communication      
Device," In Science and Technology: For the Technical Men in 
Management, No 76, April, 1968, pp. 21-31. Also reprinted in In 
Memoriam: J.C.R. Licklider: 1915-1990, Report 61, Systems Research 
Center, Digital Equipment Corporation, Palo Alto, California, August 
7, 1990, pp. 21-41.

3) See Ronda Hauben, "Cybernetics, Time-sharing, Human-Computer 
Symbiosis and Online Communities: Creating a Supercommunity of Online  
Communities," chapter 6 in  The Netizens and the Wonderful World of
the Net: On the History and the Impact of the Internet and Usenet 
News, Michael Hauben and Ronda Hauben, online manuscript, January 
10, 1994, URL

4) Norbert Wiener, I Am A Mathematician: The Later Life of a Prodigy, The 
MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1956, p. 269.

5) IBID., p. 265.

6) IBID., p. 275.

7) Norbert Wiener, God & Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where 
Cybernetics Impinges on Religion, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 
Massachusetts, 1964, p. 71.

8) I Am A Mathematician, p.326.

9) IBID., p. 308.

10) Interview of J.C.R. Licklider by William Aspray and Arthur L. 
Norberg, tape recording, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 28 October 1988, 
OH 150, Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, 
Minneapolis, Minnesota.

11) "The Legacy of Norbert Wiener: A Centennial Symposium," Cambridge, 
Massachusetts, 1994, p. 19.

12) "The Project MAC Interviews" by John A. N. Lee and Robert Rosin, in 
IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol 14 no 2, 1992, pp. 15-16.

13) IBID., p.16. 

14) "The Computer as a Communication Device," p. 22.

15) IBID., p. 40.
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