OL17: Engelbart and Augmenting Human Intellect

Engelbart and Augmenting Human Intellect

Engelbart and Augmenting Human Intellect

In 1962, Douglas C. Engelbart released his essay “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.”  I’ve just encountered Engelbart’s work for the first time, and I haven’t read the complete paper, just a document with excerpts prepared by Gardner Campbell for #OpenLearning17.  I’m working hard to fully understand the depth of ideas – even just those from the excerpts. And at this point, I can say with confidence, it’s good.

As a young man, driven by the desire to do something meaningful with his life, Doug Engelbart observed that the world problems were growing in both complexity and urgency. He noted that the exponential nature of these two factors was leading to problems that surpassed man’s problem-solving capabilities. What was most needed was to find ways to increase human capabilities – to “augment human intellect” – and Doug Engelbart decided that work in this area would be his meaningful contribution to the world.

Engelbart sought to contribute to the evolution of a “dynamic discipline that [could] treat the problem of improving intellectual effectiveness in a total sense…a discipline aimed at understanding and harnessing neural power”.  To accomplish this,  he developed a conceptual  framework for “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.”

At the heart of Engelbart’s work was the recognition that a significant amount of human intellectual activity involves composing and manipulating (modifying, rearranging) symbols and artifacts (text, sketches, diagrams, lists, etc). This manipulation of symbols often takes the shape of playing with forms and relationships – and rearranging and extending them as thoughts develop. He saw that “basic human capabilities for sensing stimuli, performing numerous mental operations, and for communicating with the outside world, are put to work in our society” in a system of the language, artifacts, and methods in which individuals are trained  – the H-LAM/T system. He explored augmenting human intellect by studying the H-LAM/T system as an “interacting whole from a synthesis-oriented approach…”

Ultimately, his vision was manifested in the form of an interactive, electronic tool which would augment human intellect by facilitating faster and more effortless composition and manipulation of the symbols and artifacts used to express, develop, and extend thought.  The device that Engelbart and his team invented was an early prototype of the desktop computer.  And the application of the device that he described was an early vision of what we now know as virtual simulations and CAD.

In addition to increasing man’s neural power through the digital manipulation of symbols and artifacts with easy, fluid interaction with the artifacts and symbols on the screen, Engelbart discovered an unanticipated benefit of this digital environment: team collaboration.  Using the new tools, he found that the performance of multi-disciplinary teams achieved synergy and was greatly enhanced. Computer-aided augmentation of intellect is even more pronounced in groups than the effect upon individuals.  He described the computer-aided team experience by saying, “It gets to be like a real whing-ding free-for-all-tremendously stimulating and satisfying, and things really get done.  You find yourself ‘playing over your head’ almost all of the time”.

In addition to envisioning interactive media and computer technologies – and their significant benefits – Engelbart also recognized a major obstacle: slow adoption.  He knew that the engineering, design, and development of his devices was achievable in the near future.  And he was confident that brain science would eventually reach the point of better understanding how the human mind works, and would reveal how these devices augmented intellect.  And he also understood that the adoption of new technologies is an incremental process – a slow evolution.  To overcome this barrier, Engelbart proposed a two-part change process that combined an active research effort that would explore, evaluate, and guide new product development, with early adopters focused on creating markets for the radical new innovations.

Now, almost 55 years later, the technological vision he described, as well as the driving societal need that inspired him, are realities that are defining our 21st Century.  Engelbart was also correct in his understanding of the major obstacle.  It took over 35 years before the adoption of the interactive personal computer began its spread to the mainstream.  And now, looking back at this long and slow process, with the advantage of living in the future world that Engelbart anticipated, I have some questions:

Learning Theories:  I wonder, was Doug Engelbart familiar with any learning theories when he formulated his ideas?  Or have learning theorists studied Engelbart’s work? I’m struck by the parallels between his description of how human intellect is enhanced – manipulating symbols and artifacts, playing with their forms and relationships, and rearranging and extending them as thoughts develop, particularly in a team environment – and Situated Cognition Theory.

Situated Cognition, also known as Activity Theory, involves three essential components: the subject (learner), the object (goal, outcome, or task), and the mediating artifacts (tools, rules, context, culture, community…) The basic premise is that learning is mediated through symbols and objects, which have historical, cultural, and social relevance. The focus is on the learning experience as construction of knowledge through social interaction¹. It seems to me that this description of the learning process is very similar to Engelbart’s description of how intellect is enhanced.

Virtual Games: I would very much like to know if Engelbart saw a connection between virtual games and his conceptual framework for enhancing human intellect.  In her Ted Talk, Jane McGonigal described virtual games as “the ideal collaborative, problem-solving environment.”  She indicated that “spending time playing games leads us to evolve to be a more collaborative and hearty species.”  And she characterized master gamers as having urgent optimism, social fabrics, blissful productivity, and epic meaning.  These qualities and the activities found in a game environment seem to fit with Engelbart’s vision of what is needed to solve the complex and urgent problems of our world.  I wonder if he agreed with Jane about the societal value of games?

Today’s Radical Innovations: I also can’t help but wonder, what are today’s radical innovations that will significantly impact our future world?  And can our early adopters do anything that will increase the rate of widespread adoption?  Or, should they?

Engelbart’s story is fascinating – and inspiring.  What if we all devoted our life’s work to the one thing that we thought could make the greatest positive impact on the future of humanity?


¹DeVane, B. & Squire, K.D. (2012). Activity Theory in the learning technologies. In D. Jonassen& S. Land (Eds.), Theoretical foundations of learning environments (pp. 242 – 267). NewYork, NY: Routledge.