Man & Machine

Chris Towers talks us through how far Licklider's Man-Computer Symbiosis has come true


Computers and data are something that few can imagine the world without. The effect that both have had on society has seen the biggest change in hundreds of years to the way we all live.

In 1960 J.C.R Licklider discussed ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis’, bringing up the idea that it can facilitate formulative thinking and enable men and computers to control situations without inflexible dependence on predetermined programs. In this way he is, in essence, describing the Internet of Things and the use of Data within it to allow computers to make decisions within it.

I wanted to look at how far Licklider’s ideas had become the truth, are we now at the stage that he prophesied 55 years ago?

Big Data has certainly allowed us to create technology that responds directly to impetus without the need for direct human interaction within the process. This has been the case for several years, with algorithms allowing for predictive analytics or programmatic systems, where servers and computers can react to information instantly.

Take Google as a prime example. Licklider’s idea is that ‘electronic or chemical machines will outdo the human brain in most of the functions we now consider exclusively within its province’. If we think about the way that Google works, by looking at billions of searches every single day, recalling millions of sites that relate to the search term and showing them to you. Having hundreds of thousands of people sorting and ranking each potential result across every possible search term, would still take millions of years. However, Google’s technology allows users to see millions of results within a fraction of a second. This is millions of times more than any mind could recall that much data.

The Internet of Things is also allowing similar non-human interactions to occur, improving elements of people’s lives. At the most basic level, simply being able to monitor conditions such as temperature and humidity through non-human set sensors can then automatically change settings for central heating and humidity controllers without the need for any kind of human intervention between the sensor and the controls.

The very basis of how much of what we do through data is now so seamlessly interwoven in to our day-to-day tasks that the Symbiosis that Licklider discussed in 1960 seems to have been surpassed. Data and increased processing powers combined with intelligent algorithms and improved technologies has meant that we do now have a truly symbiotic relationship with computers and technology. From the phones in our pockets to the sensors used on public transport, almost evert aspect of our lives now has a certain dependence of technology and technology has a dependence on us to create data with which it can perform tasks.

It is the essence of a symbiotic relationship that is only going to become more pronounced as we move forward.

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