Forty years ago Tuesday, a Silicon Valley engineer named Douglas Engelbart made a presentation so influential that computer scientists now call it "the mother of all demos." More than a mere product demo, it was a down payment on an ambitious idea: that networked computers could help groups of people work together more effectively, raising the collective intelligence of the human race and making it possible to solve some of our most pressing problems, including pollution, famine, disease, and war.
More than 100 hopeful believers in Engelbart’s vision gathered Monday at San Jose’s Tech Museum of Innovation, in the heart of Silicon Valley, to talk about the ways that they can help foster greater collective intelligence.
The conference, called Program for the Future, features Engelbart himself as well as tech industry luminaries such as Google’s director of research Peter Norvig, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, computer scientist Alan Kay and MIT professors Thomas Malone and Hiroshi Ishii.
Engelbart, now 83, is a stately, if quiet, presence at the conference. But his ideas and his personality loom large over the crowd. Ishii, for instance, called Engelbart his "god" and his "hero," citing the latter’s inspirational effects on his own career and on the development of the computer industry.
Google’s Peter Norvig was a bit more cautious. "A lot of what we do follows from him, but not everyone who works at Google necessarily recognizes that history," Norvig told Wired.com, referring to Engelbart’s 1968 demo. That might have something to do with the relative youth of Google’s workforce: With an average age of 29, most Google employees weren’t even alive in 1968.
Program for the Future organizer Mei Lin Fung called the event a"changing of the guard," a handoff from an older generation of computerengineers to a younger generation of students and entrepreneurs.Indeed, the audience demographics (as revealed by real-time wirelesspolls) showed a broad range of attendees, young and old, nonprofit andbusiness, academic and industrial.
Hiroshi Ishii‘s presentation showed one way that handoff might happen. While the sounds of laughing children visiting the museum filtered into the conference room, Ishiiscreened videos of some of the work that he and students at the MITMedia Lab’s Tangible Media Group have been working on, including onecalled the I/O Brush: a video camera hidden inside a large calligraphy brush and connected toa drawing program running on a big, white screen. Users touch the brushto an object, and can then paint on the screen with the image that they"picked up," just like the eyedropper tool in PhotoShop. It even worksfor video, prompting cries of delight from the children who were shownin the video, who pointed it at their eyes and then painted with aseries of blinking eyes.
Ishii’s lab’s work has also led to a truly Minority Report-style interface called G-Speak,which lets users interact with large datasets on wall-mounted screensand tabletop displays by waving their arms and "grabbing" virtualobjects with their hands.
What many attendees had in common was an earnest belief in the powerof collective intelligence to improve the world, a deep appreciationfor Engelbart the man, and a level of comfort with the jargon ofcollective intelligence. A long mural illustrated the significance ofthe 1968 demo on a 20-foot "co-evolution" timeline(4.4-MB image file, part of which is shown at top of this page) that paralleled Engelbart’s life and stretched past2008 into the future. On the timeline, significant events andinventions were marked with icons, while "The Demo" took the shape of ahuge, blue tidal wave of ideas: email, networked computing, onlinepublishing, video conference, hyperlinks and — of course — the mouse.
Attendees were invited to add their own ideas to the timeline with Post-it notes. After doing so, the organizers asked for a minute ofsilence while everyone contemplated the ideas being discussed, and somemembers of the crowd bowed their heads prayerfully. Afterwards, peopleshouted out their best ideas: "World 2.0," one man said, to answeringcheers, and "Life in an integrated domain," yelled another one,prompting whoops from the crowd.
It wasn’t all jargon and hopeful visions. "One-to-many"presentations were intermixed with more collaborative sessions, inwhich participants were asked to come up with ideas for advancing thecollective intelligence program.
But in the end, the conference came down to a fundamental beliefthat technology could help people get better at solving real andpressing problems.
Engelbart boiled his theory down to the single principle of continuous improvement, Norvig said. "If you continuously improve, everything elsewill take care of itself."
"But really you also need to be improving in the right direction,"Norvig continued. "The reason Doug passed over this is that he had suchmoral clarity he knew what direction he wanted to move in."
The rest of us, it seems, are still trying to catch up.
The Program for the Future conference continues through Tuesday morning. Tuesday afternoon, Stanford University will host a 40thanniversary celebration, Engelbart and the Dawn of Interactive Computing.
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