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Book: The Engelbart Hypothesis

February 5, 2016 | 2 Comments

Summary: The late Doug Engelbart was the inventor of the mouse, but that is the least interesting thing about him. He is the creator of “The Mother of All Demos”, a 1968 demo that included hypertext, teleconferencing, word processing, hypermedia, and, yes, the mouse. The 1968 demo was so amazing that he was accused of faking the whole thing.

“The Engelbart Hypothesis: Dialogs with Douglas Engelbart” by Valerie Landau, Eileen Clegg, and, yes, Douglas Engelbart, is an interview of Engelbart followed by a series of short pieces by luminaries who knew and were motivated by Engelbart’s vision (Alan Kay and Vint Cerf among others.) The interviews cover a lot of Engelbart’s thoughts on machines augmenting the human intellect and enabling groups of humans to achieve more than they could individually. If you’ve read Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, Engelbart’s famous whitepaper which ended up leading to the mother of all demos, there is a lot that is presented along those lines. There is also a lot of biographical material here of interest, for example the story about his talk that perhaps indirectly led to Moore’s work on Moore’s law. All in all a fine introduction to these ideas and emphasizes how much the human part of the story motivated Engelbart. The second half interviews give perspective on how others have taken what Engelbart conceived and moved it to the ‘real world’.

Rating: Read Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. If you find that fascinating, you’ll love this book. Note: the Kindle version of the book has some severe formatting problems. These problems don’t make it totally unreadable but there are footnotes/asides that need to be un-winded from the main flow of the text.

Speculative: Out speculating one of the greatest speculators of the twentieth century seems like a huge task. One of the central original ideas of Engelbart’s augmentation strategy was to work towards augmenting programmers. There are a lot of reasons that this was a great starting point, but ever since I can remember reading about this I’ve wondered what sorts of tools I would use to augment doing theoretical physics. When I try to take apart what I am doing when thinking about a theory problem, it is amazing how much of it is just involved in creating the structures to conceptualize the problem. Each new problem, at least for me, leads to a new domain specific language for the problem. Frustratingly some of the components of this step should be handled more adeptly by a computer. Some people do this by resorting to tools like Mathematica to “play” with examples. But it feels like there is a missing tool which is not so tightly coupled to our math notation, but is both geometric and automatic. Somewhere between a CAD and Mathematica it feels like there is a space for visualized mathematics that a theorist could use to think through their problems (I will admit that I am a geometry guy, not an algebraist. When I meet one the later my mind can barely grasp how they are thinking. Likely they have a tool they would like too.)

2 people are talking about “Book: The Engelbart Hypothesis

  1. I recently cleaned out a bunch of old notepads that I had piled up. Flipping through them I could use a computer that remembers kanji (check), draws graphs (check), draws graphs on surfaces that are then scribbled out (I think I can write this script), and finally draws hands as potted plants (i am not sure that this recurring motif has ever helped me solve anything but it is in every notebook).

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