He is particularly remembered for being one of the first to foresee modern-style interactive computing and its application to all manner of activities; and also as an Internet pioneer with an early vision of a worldwide computer network long before it was built. He did much to actually initiate this by funding research which led to much of it, including today's canonical graphical user interface, and the ARPANET, the direct predecessor to the Internet.
He has been called "computing's Johnny Appleseed", for planting the seeds of computing in the digital age; Robert Taylor, founder of Xerox PARC's Computer Science Laboratory and Digital Equipment Corporation's Systems Research Center, noted that "most of the significant advances in computer technology—including the work that my group did at Xerox PARC—were simply extrapolations of Lick's vision. They were not really new visions of their own. So he was really the father of it all".
Licklider was born on March 11, 1915, in St. Louis, Missouri, United States. He was the only child of Joseph Parron Licklider, a Baptist minister, and Margaret Robnett Licklider. Despite his father's religious background, he was not religious in later life.
He studied at Washington University in St. Louis, where he received a triple bachelor of arts degree in 1937, in physics, mathematics, and psychology, and a master of arts degree in psychology in 1938. He received a PhD in psychoacoustics from the University of Rochester in 1942, and worked at the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory at Harvard University from 1943 to 1950.
He became interested in information technology, and moved to MIT in 1950 as an associate professor, where he served on a committee that established MIT Lincoln Laboratory and a psychology program for engineering students.
While at MIT Licklider was involved in the SAGE project, in the capacity of head of the team concerned with human factors.
In 1957 he received the Franklin V. Taylor Award from the Society of Engineering Psychologists. In 1958 he was elected President of the Acoustical Society of America, and in 1990 he received the Commonwealth Award for Distinguished Service.
In 1957 he became a Vice President at Bolt Beranek and Newman, Inc., where he bought the first production PDP-1 computer and conducted the first public demonstration of time-sharing.
In October 1962, Licklider was appointed head of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) at ARPA, the United States Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an appointment he kept until sometime during 1964.
In 1963 he was named Director of Behavioral Sciences Command & Control Research at ARPA. In April of that year, he sent a memo to his colleagues in outlining the early challenges presented in establishing a time-sharing network of computers with the software of that time. Ultimately, his vision led to ARPANet, the precursor of today's Internet.
In 1968 J. C. R. Licklider became director of Project MAC at MIT, and a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering. Project MAC had produced the first computer time-sharing system, CTSS, and one of the first online setups with the development of Multics (work on which commenced in 1964). Multics provided inspiration for some elements of the Unix operating system developed at Bell Labs by Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie in 1970.
He retired and became Professor Emeritus in 1985. He died in 1990 in Arlington, Massachusetts.
In the psychoacoustics field, Licklider is most remembered for his 1951 "Duplex Theory of Pitch Perception", presented in a paper that has been cited hundreds of times, was reprinted in a 1979 book, and formed the basis for modern models of pitch perception.
While at MIT in the 1950s, Licklider worked on Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), a Cold War project to create a computer-aided air defense system. The SAGE system included computers that collected and presented data to a human operator, who then chose the appropriate response. Licklider worked as a human factors expert, which helped convince him of the great potential for human/computer interfaces.
Licklider became interested in information technology early in his career. His ideas foretold of graphical computing, point-and-click interfaces, digital libraries, e-commerce, online banking, and software that would exist on a network and migrate wherever it was needed. Much like Vannevar Bush's, Licklider's contribution to the development of the Internet consists of ideas, not inventions. He foresaw the need for networked computers with easy user interfaces.
Licklider was instrumental in conceiving, funding and managing the research that led to modern personal computers and the Internet. In 1960 his seminal paper on "Man-Computer Symbiosis" foreshadowed interactive computing, and he went on to fund early efforts in time-sharing and application development, most notably the work of Douglas Engelbart, who founded the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute and created the famous On-Line System where the computer mouse was invented.
He also did some seminal early work for the Council on Library Resources, imagining what libraries of the future might look like, which he had described as "thinking centers" in his 1960 paper.
In "Man-Computer Symbiosis", Licklider outlined the need for simpler interaction between computers and computer users. Licklider has been credited as an early pioneer of cybernetics and artificial intelligence (AI), but unlike many AI practitioners, Licklider never felt that men would be replaced by computer-based beings. As he wrote in that article: "Men will set the goals, formulate the hypotheses, determine the criteria, and perform the evaluations. Computing machines will do the routinizable work that must be done to prepare the way for insights and decisions in technical and scientific thinking". This approach, focusing on effective use of information technology in augmenting human intelligence, is sometimes called Intelligence amplification (IA).
During his time as director of ARPA's Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) from 1962 to 1964, he funded Project MAC at MIT where a large mainframe computer was designed to be shared by up to 30 simultaneous users, each sitting at a separate "typewriter terminal". He also funded similar projects at Stanford University, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and the AN/FSQ-32 at System Development Corporation. In 1964, Licklider left IPTO and went to work at IBM. In 1968, he went back to MIT to lead Project MAC.
Licklider played a similar role in conceiving of and funding early networking research, most notably the ARPAnet. He formulated the earliest ideas of a global computer network in August 1962 at BBN, in a series of memos discussing the "Intergalactic Computer Network" concept. These ideas contained almost everything that the Internet is today, including cloud computing.
While at IPTO, he convinced Ivan Sutherland, Bob Taylor, and Lawrence G. Roberts that an all-encompassing computer network was a very important concept.
In 1967 Licklider submitted the paper "Televistas: Looking ahead through side windows" to the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. This paper describes a radical departure from the "broadcast" model of television. Instead, Licklider advocates a two-way communications network. The Carnegie Commission led to the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Although the Commission's report explains that "Dr. Licklider's paper was completed after the Commission had formulated its own conclusions," President Johnson said at the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, "So I think we must consider new ways to build a great network for knowledge—not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and of storing information that the individual can use".
His 1968 paper The Computer as a Communication Device illustrates his vision of network applications and predicts the use of computer networks to support communities of common interest and collaboration without regard to location.
Licklider wrote numerous articles and lectures, and one book:1942. An Electrical Investigation of Frequency-Localization in the Auditory Cortex of the Cat. Ph.D. Thesis University of Rochester
1965. Libraries of the future. Cambridge, Mass., M.I.T. Press (alternative online source)
Articles, a selection:1960. "Man-Computer Symbiosis". In: Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, volume HFE-1, pages 4–11, March 1960.
1963. "Memorandum for Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network". Advanced Research Projects Agency, April 23, 1963.
1965. "Man-Computer Partnership". In: International Science and Technology May 1965.
1967. "Televistas: Looking ahead through side windows". Report of the Carnegie Commission on Public Television, 1967, pages 201-225.
1967. "Computers Are Helping Scientists Locate That Particular Pebble in the New Avalanche of Information"
1968. "The Computer as a Communication Device". In: Science and Technology. April 1968.