Augmenting Human Intellect, D. C. Engelhart, 1962

5 10 2011

This reading reflection post was generated by my participation to the Virtual Worlds New Media Faculty-Staff seminar Fall 2011.

Boosting mankind’s capability for coping with complex, urgent problems” Dough Engelbart

This week we are reflecting and discussing Engelbart’s 1962 SRI Summary Report, titled “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” The report is a 90 page reading, therefore, as I sat down with at my desk with an old fashion pencil#2 at the ready… I decided to start by watching the 100 minute video demo that Engelhart hosted on December 9, 1968. Watch the Mother of all Demo during which Engelhart demonstrates the use of a personal computer’s affordances (type, copy, paste, graphic files, hyperlink, programming languages, etc). Watching him type and go through different computer’s functions made my fingers hitch for typing myself…and trying to capture and re-live his excitement of using such an amazing technology in the comfort of my home.

The report: By “augmenting human intellect”, Engelbart means “increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems.” The report covers the first phase of a program aimed at developing means to augment the human intellect, including presenting the conceptual framework (section II), the important factors of the system, their relationships, types of change, and research goals and methodology. Section III provides a context to the reader and section IV lists research recommendations that would focus on 1) “giving the human the minute-by-minute services of a digital computer equipped with a computer-driven cathode-ray-tube display [isn’t it fun to read from a eye-from-the-future and remember about those less-than-flat monitors?] and, (2) developing the new methods of thinking and working that allow the human to capitalize upon the computer’s help” […] specifically speaking about getting humans better at computer programming. Engelbart proceeds with describing an “augmented architect” at work. The architect is working on his PC and is described designing a building with the help of the computer, his “clerk”. Said computer reacts to data provided by the architect and adapts the building design accordingly. Not only Engelbart imagines the architect using a 3D program to create the building, use and call up resources from the program catalog, he also envisions the architect able to modify the view on his screen and see his 3d model from an overhead view or select a specific part of the structure to fine-tune the functionality of the entire construction site.

Engelbart postulates that our intellects are already augmented such as by language artifacts and methodology. A hierarchy of process capabilities rest on the “basic human capabilities and the functional capabilities of the artifacts, which are organized into ever more sophisticated capabilities” (5a2c). Engelbart states that “the automation of the symbol manipulation associated with the minute-by-minute mental processes offers a logical next step in the evolution of our intellectual capability” (5a2e).

I still have to think about that one. I am not sure I agree, but I have yet to develop a coherent defense.

J. Choi provides a very interesting summary setting Engelbert in the context of V. Bush, N. Wiener and J. C. R. Licklider’s works.

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