Twas a wintry December Monday in 1968, when 43-year-old inventor Douglas C
Engelbart, dressed up in formals, took to stage at the Fall Joint Computer
Conference in San Francisco. Wearing a headset, Engelbart gave a demonstration
of a project titled Augmenting Human Intellect that he and his team had been
working on at the SRI Campus in Menlo Park, California. In some ninety odd
minutes, Engelbart completely changed the way people perceived and would
perceive computers henceforththrough the numerous inventions that debuted that
day, like the hyperlink, graphical user interface, an online system (NLS),
object addressing and dynamic file linking, and, amazingly, communication over a
network with audio and video interface (later to be known as video-conferencing)
and not to forget the groovy mouse. By showing how he could manage his shopping
list (frequently updated by wife) on a computer screen through links and charts,
Engelbart liberated the computer from the labs and brought it within the realms
of what he called the knowledge worker. Little wonder that Engelbarts demo
has ever since been referred to as the Mother of all the Demos.
It has been some forty years since that penultimate night, and the world has
changed so much. Still, Engelbart continues to toil. The man, who shared
tomorrow some four decades back, has still a lot to show us. Renowned as the
father of the mouse, Engelbart is, without any doubt, one of the greatest
inventors of computing. But more than an inventor, he is also a philosopher who
finds metaphysical strains in his work. Even now, he is striving at the
Bootstrap Institute, trying to show the world how human intelligence could be
augmented through collective effort, what he calls Collective IQ. In a detailed
discussion with Dataquest, Engelbart shared his vision for the future and his
hope that India would be a part of that vision. Excerpts.
All those wonderful things that you demonstrated in 1968 are becoming real
now. How do you feel about it? Is it great to know that you were so ahead of
your time or are you saddened by the fact that the computer industry is
achieving now all the things that you had laid out way back then?
To be truthful, it really makes me feel inadequate. I have often wondered
why I couldnt explain all those advancements in ways that it could be easily
understood by all. It is an overwhelming thought.
Nearly a decade back, there was an event organized that spoke about
Douglas Engelbarts unfinished revolution. What do you think is the current
state of that revolution?
It is trudging along, and what I miss is a chance for direct dialogue. I
think about the basic concepts of what I call augmenting our Collective IQ. I
would really welcome a direct dialogue on what is Collective IQ and what
augmentation is all about. I believe that it is extremely important for the
human society to boost its Collective IQ and look. I look collectively at the
problems we face.
It was in the sixties that you had spoken about augmenting human intellect
through the use of machines. At times the implications of the same are not very
clear… if you could talk of it?
The whole human society is basically divided in terms of laborsome people
create food, some manage information, and others disseminate it. Just imagine if
all this complexity could be done away with, and a grand system could tap the
capability. Great things achieved by humans have largely been a collective
effort, take for instance the invention of language, writing, books, the human
evolution has been dependent on collectivism. Even today we can see a glimpse of
collectivism in the way companies or governments are run or even the World Wide
Web. For instance, global warming is one such issue haunting the humanity and
how well it is recognized, but then how well it is being discussed at the global
How do we move toward the state of Collective IQ?
Collective IQ is a capability level, there is a long road ahead and a great
deal of evolution is needed. I have been studying literature and articles that
talk of such capability and I hope to hear an echo of it by now. You must have
seen from time to time these diagrams of different functionalities that they
have isolated in the brain. For instance, there are portions of the brain that
handle the sensory input, and the others that handle logical reasoning. Havent
you wondered how effortlessly our brain processes information from different
sensory organs, be it audio from our ears or visuals from the eyes.
How is your work progressing at the Bootstrap Institute that you founded
some years ago?
It has just faded away a lot because I am essentially working alone and by
myself. I am old and not a very effective coordinator of things. I dont really
know what I should do to make more effective use of my dwindling energies. Many
decades back, with my team, I was the first one to build a hyperlink; I had
wanted it to be able to address any object, and, similarly, I wanted to have
discussions and debate on things that could take place. I remember the time when
we were working on the GUI. One big domain was the different ways in which you
could view a document, significantly change how you look and study a document.
For instance, you could see the first line of every paragraph in the document or
you could view all the content. There could also be many ways to jump within a
document. For instance, a jump could be based on the occurrence of the given
The computer can be a truly creative device, it can provide a whole many ways
to give a symbolic presentation of the knowledge that we are trying to deal
with. What the human brain can achieve with visual and auditory perception, so
can the computer without significant challenges. Honestly, we have only started
with how the computer can augment ones capability, understand and communicate.
What is the status of the Open Hyper Document System that you had
All these things have become stationary because I am eighty-two and cant
keep running about to coordinate things. Why dont you get India to get moving
on augmenting human intellect and I could join in? I was very impressed a year
or so ago, when the Prime Minister of India made a declaration that India would,
kind of, look at boosting the Collective IQ. The more I think about the size and
opportunity and the general reputation that India has for intelligence and
capabilities, the more hopeful I become of the potential the country has. I
dont know of a country that is as unusually placed as India, with its huge and
educated population. It will be truly wonderful, if we could get something going
in India. I hope that India will take a lead in the research of Collective IQ
and the rest of the world will follow.
At times, I feel embarrassed that I come to office day after day and dont do
much about these projects. Why dont we get it going? How soon can I start
hearing from India that Collective IQ has become a nationwide movement?
What do you feel about the commercialization of technology, the rush for
riches and patents?
I am not sure if there is any real option for the society, except
commercialization. What incentive would the inventor have or how will an
innovator be paid. I wish there were a lot more freedom for evolution. I just
shrug and take things as they are. I remember people talked me into patenting
the mouse. But, I did not patent other things. Imagine what would have happened
had I patented the idea of the link (hyperlink). Commercialization should not be
the be all and end all of everything.
How do you assess the current level of technology with powerful PCs with
I think it is very good and is touching a lot of people around the world. I
think the valuable thing to do would be to further research on how computing can
be made more pervasive. I think the computer has a far greater potential than
merely emulating the page or something, but that is what is stuck in the
paradigm of today. I dont have a research team and I wish there were some way
to get research going on the way that computer technology could provide new ways
to read and modify text that books dont provide. I feel there is much in the
way of effectiveness that could be done.
You were also involved with the precursor of the Internet?
Yes, I was part of the ARPANET project. At that time, the idea of the
Internet was much different from what we have today. The pitch was like you have
some data on your machine and someone wants to access it, it could be done
through the Internet. I remember two university researchers were there when the
discussions were taking place and suddenly one turned to the other and asked,
What is there on your computer that I could use? And the other retorted,
Dont you read my reports? Thus, genesis was simple. What I proposed to set up
was a Knowledge Information System.
I also read somewhere that you had a small role in the formulation of
I had indeed mentioned that the chips will keep getting smaller and that the
transistors on them would up exponentially, but I didnt put a number to it. I
remember, in 1958, I was speaking at an event and was talking about dimensional
scaling, making things smaller and smaller. I had done intensive research and
gave a talk on it on a professional society and it turns out that Gordon Moore
was there in the audience. And Moores Law came later on. I believe that
electronic components would, indeed, be smaller and smaller due to the hunger
for new inventive things that we have.
Do you believe that the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots
will ever be bridged?
Oh! I think it is inevitable with technology getting cheaper and cheaper.
For instance, the $100 laptop that came out recently. I believe every one in the
Indian universities could use the laptop, and then it could percolate to the
schools. I feel it is inevitable that computers will replace books.
In a biographical sketch, your daughter had stated people are looking at his
past accomplishments while he himself continues to point to the future…
Thats right; there is so little dialog going on currently and thats what I
really yearn for.
What really motivates you now?
I hope that something can get going in the world and I want to stay alive
and alert for that. I almost gave up publishing rather stupidly, you know I had
indeed published a fair amount, but I didnt seem to be able to make much
Is there some sort of sadness that you have?
I guess sadness may be appropriate. But then, I tend to say, Well it is
your fault Doug, you dont know the rest of the world well enough to be able to
communicate and make them see what you do. So, at the end of the day that seems
to be a pattern of how I look at things.
Do you not think that the invention of the mouse overshadows everything
else done by you?
Sure it does overshadow, but it makes me very happy. Imagine a significant
portion of the worlds population using my invention. It is hard for me to get
used to it.