J.C.R. Licklider: Man-Computer Symbiosis

J. C. R. Licklider in this article presents the concept of man-computer symbiosis, as well as problems of interaction between men and computing machines which he feels should be addressed for the symbiosis to be accomplishable.

Symbiosis is defined as the “living together in intimate association, or even close union, of two dissimilar organisms”. Based on that definition we can see man-computer symbiosis as a subclass of man-machine systems, where the mechanical parts are not just extensions of man but cooperators. Licklider argues that when viewed as extensions, the machines are there to help the human body perform an action, but this has given way to automation, and in this case the men are there more to help than to be helped.

The main aims of man-computer symbiosis are described as letting computers facilitate formulative thinking as they now facilitate the solution of formulated problems, and also enabling men and computers to cooperate in making decisions and controlling complex situations in “real time”. In the anticipated symbiotic partnership, men will set the goals, formulate the hypotheses, determine the criteria, and perform the evaluations. The information-processing equipment, for its part, will carry out the clerical operations in order to convert hypotheses into testable models and then test these models. In addition, the computer will  make elementary evaluations of suggested courses of action, and also as much diagnosis, pattern-matching, and relevance-recognizing as it profitably can.

Finally, Licklider discusses some pre-requirements for the effective cooperative association between men and machines to be achieved. These include developments in computer time sharing, in memory components, in memory organization, in programming languages, and in input and output equipment.


Taking into consideration that this article was writen in the sixties, how do we see man-computer symbiosis now? Has it been achieved in the sense Licklider envisioned it or have we found a different way to interact with technology?Additionally, how can we relate the ideas about the body we discussed in a previous class to how he sees humans in relation to machines?


~ by Joanna Ioannidou on March 8, 2009.

7 Responses to “J.C.R. Licklider: Man-Computer Symbiosis”

  1. I think that if we take Licklider’s description of m-m-symbiosis as “between mechanically extended man and artificial intelligence,” we (mankind?) have come a long way since integrated circuits were introduced. And I think that if our usage of the internet is taken into consideration, we even furthered somewhat, because now we use the internet to “think of mechanisms, procedures, and models …, remember that such-and-such person did [so-and-so],” actions that Licklider confines to “men.” (I am too much of a pacifist to embrace Licklider’s examples, but the increased claims of “clean wars” attest to Licklider’s prophetical [or rhetorical] gift.)

  2. (I meant m-c-symbiosis.)

  3. Licklider indeed foresees a bright future for the interaction between men and machines, as a effective relationship would “greatly improve the thinking process”. I think nowadays, especially in western ‘modern’ culture, we are very dependent on machinery and maybe not even capable of living without it anymore. The symbiotic partnership Licklider proposes seems a very ‘equal’ one, yet technology now seems to have the overhand in decision making, or even in the ‘creation of’ perception, more a McLuhan point of view (then ofcourse, you could argue that it is men who make that possible).

    Still, does it “greatly improve the thinking process”? It would depend on what one thinks is more important: time or individual knowledge/growth? We let the machine think fór us: 3568 x 34, hmm, let me get my calculator. There is a shift from “intern human performance” to “extern human performance”: we don’t learn how to solve the problem ourselves, but we learn how we can work with the computer to solve the problem ‘together’ (or does the computer has the overhand here?). Bye bye electricity bye bye me?

  4. Just today I read a newspaper article on Ruud Schotting’s inaugural speech at UU in which he warns against the usage of graphical calculators because it makes students dumb. They can’t even perform basic calculations. He even (seriously?) proposed to ban the sale of those computers to person under 18. It’s in Dutch: http://www.telegraaf.nl/binnenland/article3426179.ece?cid=mailart
    So, to perpetuate the questions above: Is that really a problem? Are we gradually getting dumber?

  5. Bernadette, to answer to your farewell… Over a decade ago instead of defining the era we were living and entering with another ism Donna Haraway defined it as an email address: Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™:

    ‘Instead of naming this difference – postmodern, metamodern, amodern, late modern, hypermodern, or just plain generic Wonder Bread modern – I give the reader an e-mail address, if not a password, to situte things in the net’ (Haraway, 1997: 43).

    What she implies might indeed be a farewell to ‘me’ as you were perceiving it before.

    Klaas, a brief correction – the way Licklider defines Man-Computer Symbiosis is not like you are referring to – he situates himself in the juxtaposition you mention, while ‘Between ‘Mechanically Extended Man’ and ‘Artificial Intelligence’ is a title of a chapter in his text. Licklider quite explicitly states his stance on AI, which is a reserved one.

    In answering the last part of your question, Joanna, I will respond to it along with an observation on Klass’ last remark regarding our state of dumbness. Neither computers, nor this symbiosis is a panacea, yet technological developments deconstruct our understanding of categories and facing this deterritorialisation is crucial. My sister tried a golden flute this weekend, which would be the Rolls-Royce in the variety of these instruments produced. The person selling it remarked that there are quite plenty of those who afford to purchase it, yet they never master its potential. I believe, this is what Licklider is referring to throughout the text – the potential of ‘techno-logic’, the term I am borrowing from Marek Wojtaszek’s rather thought provoking article ‘Negotiating the Virtual. The Matrix, the Internet and a New Thechno-logic’ (forthcoming). We should think of the affordance of the machines.

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