Nugget #3 on Augmenting Human Intellect

The Augmenting Human Intellect paper by Dr Douglas Engelbart is chock full of interesting and valuable ideas.  Most significantly, it in many ways blew away my initial concepts for my inquiry project.  I’ve been thinking about how features of NLS/Augment have or have not made it into current collaboration technology. What I neglected to take into account was that NLS/Augment was a research system and perhaps never intended to be a final system; perhaps it was never more than a stepping-stone to even more advanced artifacts for human augmentation.  It was only a (small!) part of the overall augmentation system, not even necessarily the key piece.

In the AHI paper, Engelbart describes the H-LAM/T system: the Human augmented by the Language, Artifacts, and Methodology in which he is Trained.  In this view, NLS/Augment is but an artifact, which provides a small (command-line) language and methods with which the trained human can use to increase his effectiveness.  Engelbart also states that the human and the artifacts are the only physical components of the system.  Hmmm… Where does software fit?  I think it’s an artifact, but there are languages and methods somehow involved, and I’m not yet sure where the separating lines are.

The nugget I wish to discuss is as follows:

Individuals who operate effectively in our culture have already been considerably “augmented.” Basic human capabilities for sensing stimuli, performing numerous mental operations, and for communicating with the outside world, are put to work in our society within a system–an H-LAM/T system–the individual augmented by the language, artifacts, and methodology in which he is trained. Furthermore, we suspect that improving the effectiveness of the individual as he operates in our society should be approached as a system-engineering problem–that is, the H-LAM/T system should be studied as an interacting whole from a synthesis-oriented approach.

Of particular interest and importance is that Engelbart is suggesting that the ENTIRE augmentation process be approached as a system-engineering problem. The definition of the system is particularly important: it’s not just a human, it’s not a particular tool or computer program, it’s not a language or method. It’s the COMBINATION of a human with language(s) and artifact(s) and method(s) (and methodologies), and the human is TRAINED in the use of all of them.

The concept of language is quite important.  It isn’t necessarily limited to human languages (English, Spanish, Russian, etc.) or computer languages (binary, ASCII, Unicode, Fortran, C, Javascript, Eiffel, Ruby, Postscript, SGML, etc. etc.), but includes ideas of the imperative commands we can provide software (including pointing and gestures and perhaps voice or thoughts), and the means by which a computer can respond (via a display or sounds or tactile feedback or other means.)  I need to study further to determine exactly what Engelbart conceived of as ‘language’, and how he intended his use of that term to be interpreted.

One of the very significant concepts within Engelbart’s formulation of the augmentation problem is what he termed the ABC model.  A activities are those we use to carry out our business.  B activities are those which improve the A activities.  And C activities are those which improve the B activities: they improve our ability to improve.  (Somewhere here there’s got to be a good analogy to math, which I’ll poorly phrase thus: the B activities are like the slope or derivative or velocity; C activities are like a second derivative or acceleration.  So A activities to which are applied both positive B and positive C activities will improve at a rapidly increasing pace.)  I’ve been thinking of NLS/Augment as the result of a B activity, which facilitates A activities.  What I neglected is that there must be C activities which will continue to build upon, extend, and eventually replace NLS/Augment and its capabilities.

Another major aspect I neglected to take into account in considering my Inquiry Project is that there are MULTIPLE artifacts in simultaneous use.  Paper.  Pencil and Pen. Computers. Telephones. Cars and Roads. Money.  Etc.  Engelbart defined the H-LAM/T system much more largely and widely than I originally considered.  I was focused on the NLS/Augment software and related computer hardware (display, mouse, chording keyboard, etc.); that computer system is just but one (significant but) minor component of the overall H-LAM/T system.  Even the training is important!  Both at work and at home I am constantly reminded how training and practice are both required to make effective use of the computers and software available to us. (I’ve had had extensive training and experience with tools my family and certain co-workers do not know how to use effectively.)

There are many more ideas within the AHI paper than I can fully grasp and map to features in NLS/Augment, within the scope of the UNIV 200 course or Inquiry Project.  I’m going to need to plan for a much smaller scope.  I still think deep study of the features of NLS/Augment and the documented concepts within the AHI paper are very worthwhile, but an appropriately scaled project scope is not yet obvious to me.

For future follow up:

  • Study more fully/deeply Engelbart’s concept and use of the term language.
  • Study more fully the concept of artifact, especially with respect to how software fits in.
  • Find and study more about how Engelbart set up the augmentation problem as a systems-engineering problem.
  • Define a smaller scope for my Inquiry Project.

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