“The complexity and urgency of the problems faced by us earth-bound humans are increasing much faster than our combined capabilities for understanding and coping with them. This is a very serious problem.” — Doug Engelbart, 2004

It’s a shame that Doug Engelbart didn’t have a chance to experience today’s artificial intelligence technology. I wish I could ask him for his thoughts on virtual assistants like Alexa, and modern AI applications in the business world. 

Englebart, one of the PC revolution’s most important visionaries, died in 2013. Widely known as the inventor of the computer mouse, Engelbart’s true legacy extends far beyond that. In the 1960s, Engelbart led a team at Stanford Research Institute (now known as SRI International) that was credited with several technological breakthroughs that we take for granted today, including on-screen text editing, hyperlinking, the interactive user interface, remote collaboration, and of course, the mouse. In 1968, he and his team executed the “mother of all demos,” showcasing many of those breakthroughs during a 90-minute trade show presentation in front of a thousand awestruck onlookers in San Francisco.  

Engelbart saw computer technology as a “Tool System” that could help humans synthesize and apply our collective wisdom and experience. Englebart believed that, together, human systems and technology systems could increase our “Collective IQ” and help solve increasingly complex, global problems. 

Technology should augment human intelligence, not dumb it down

“We see the quickest gains emerging from (1) giving the human the minute-by-minute services of a digital computer equipped with computer-driven cathode-ray-tube display, and (2) developing the new methods of thinking and working that allow the human to capitalize upon the computer’s help.” — Doug Engelbart, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework (October 1962)

In the early 2000s, I was incredibly fortunate to get to know Engelbart, then in his mid-70s. I was working as a junior marketer at Logitech, which provided office space for Engelbart and his Bootstrap Alliance. We’d chat in the hallway and occasionally he’d invite me into his office to look at relics from the past. He once gave me a personal demonstration of how he could input information with uncanny efficiency using the combination of a 1960s era mouse and a five-key keyset he designed. 

(IMAGE: Doug Engelbart, known as the inventor of the mouse, also created a five-key keyset that could produce alphanumeric characters and commands. SOURCE: Doug Engelbart Institute)

I was a curious ex-journalist, so I relished the opportunity to ask questions of an industry legend. After many casual conversations, I formally interviewed him and wrote a profile of Engelbart on behalf of Logitech.

Engelbart’s passion was relentless — and irresistible. He’d remained committed to finding new means of using technology to boost our collective intelligence. He once showed me a prototype of his National Science Foundation-funded HyperScope project, which later launched in 2006, a web-based tool to help researchers link and advance different ideas. He was very much still fighting to get tech companies to think more globally in what was once dubbed Doug Engelbart’s Unfinished Revolution

But lurking underneath his incredible energy was a distinct note of sadness. Nearly 40 years after he had delivered the “mother of all demos,” he was frustrated by much of what he saw in the tech industry. He openly expressed disappointment over the dumbing down of the modern PC. He felt that many companies were designing products for an unsophisticated user, and by doing so, placing artificial limits on our collective capabilities. The walls that technology companies were building, in an attempt to simplify the user experience for the masses, were thwarting his hopes for a free-flowing, hyperconnected digital universe. This was ultimately limiting our “Collective IQ.” 

Could AI be an enabler for Engelbart’s ‘Collective IQ’ vision?

If in your office, you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive, how much value could you derive from that?” — Doug Engelbart, opening line from the “mother of all demos,” San Francisco, 1968

I’d love to see Engelbart have a conversation with Amazon’s Alexa, but I’m pretty sure he’d hate it. Alexa is, after all, designed to be extremely limited in its ability to perform broad searches and other basic tasks. 

However, I think Engelbart would be excited about where modern AI is headed. For all the artificial walls that technology companies have created, applied AI has the potential to transcend those walls. AI can synthesize a staggering amount and variety of almost any type of data. I think he’d agree that AI could be an important layer of the “Tool System,” related in purpose to Engelbart’s HyperScope, designed to make sense of our rapidly growing universe of information and advance our collective thinking. 

Businesses today are using AI and machine learning to efficiently analyze “big data” — giving teams increased business intelligence. And, in our domain here at Directly, we’re helping companies apply AI to improve the speed and quality of customer service

We believe AI is becoming an essential layer to any company’s “Collective IQ” — helping solve (to borrow from Engelbart) increasingly complex business problems today. Now government organizations (like the NSA with its Skynet counterterrorism project) are starting to apply AI and machine learning to the types of complex global issues that Engelbart had hoped technology would address.  

Not replacing the human mind. Helping it

“At the dawn of the modern computer era, two Pentagon-financed laboratories bracketed Stanford University. At one laboratory, a small group of scientists and engineers worked to replace the human mind, while at the other, a similar group [led by Engelbart] worked to augment it.” — John Markoff, New York Times

In 2011, leading up to a well-publicized Jeopardy matchup between IBM’s Watson and two former human champions, tech pundit John Markoff wrote a brilliant essay about the long-standing tension between two different perspectives on AI and computer technology. In one camp, people believed AI would replace the human mind. In another, AI would enhance it. Markoff referred to this as AI (artificial intelligence) vs. IA (intelligence augmentation). Engelbart, of course, was in the IA camp. 

Much has changed since the essay was published eight years ago. AI and machine learning technologies are automating some tasks and jobs — in some cases leading to job loss. However, AI, we’re learning via the fast-growing number of practical applications, can’t truly replace human mind or thought. AI is, when you dig in, simply code. AI isn’t all that intelligent without us humans — it needs human wisdom and experience to be truly smart. 

But human-AI collaboration, in which AI helps analyze, summarize and surface our best collective thinking? And AI that augments our thinking, instead of replacing it? That’s where we’re seeing real progress. That’s the stuff that should spark passion for today’s generation of global problem-solvers. That’s what I wish I could talk with Doug Engelbart about today: “Collective IQ” in the era of AI. I think he’d agree that AI has real potential to increase our “Collective IQ.” In some cases, it has already.  

Troy Petersen is an editorial consultant for Directly.