Excerpts from “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”

By Douglas C. Engelbart
October 1962
(Complete essay at the Doug Engelbart Institute website)


  2. GENERAL1a

By “augmenting human intellect” we mean 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. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble. And by “complex situations” we include the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers–whether the problem situation exists for twenty minutes or twenty years. We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human “feel for a situation” usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.1a1

Man’s population and gross product are increasing at a considerable rate, but the complexity of his problems grows still faster, and the urgency with which solutions must be found becomes steadily greater in response to the increased rate of activity and the increasingly global nature of that activity. Augmenting man’s intellect, in the sense defined above, would warrant full pursuit by an enlightened society if there could be shown a reasonable approach and some plausible benefits….1a2

This kind of system approach to human intellectual effectiveness does not find a ready-made conceptual framework such as exists for established disciplines. Before a research program can be designed to pursue such an approach intelligently, so that practical benefits might be derived within a reasonable time while also producing results of long-range significance, a conceptual framework must be searched out–a framework that provides orientation as to the important factors of the system, the relationships among these factors, the types of change among the system factors that offer likely improvements in performance, and the sort of research goals and methodology that seem promising….11a4

Let us consider an augmented architect at work. He sits at a working station that has a visual display screen some three feet on a side; this is his working surface, and is controlled by a computer (his “clerk” ) with which he can communicate by means of a small keyboard and various other devices.1a11

He is designing a building. He has already dreamed up several basic layouts and structural forms, and is trying them out on the screen. The surveying data for the layout he is working on now have already been entered, and he has just coaxed the clerk to show him a perspective view of the steep hillside building site with the roadway above, symbolic representations of the various trees that are to remain on the lot, and the service tie points for the different utilities. The view occupies the left two-thirds of the screen. With a “pointer,” he indicates two points of interest, moves his left hand rapidly over the keyboard, and the distance and elevation between the points indicated appear on the right- hand third of the screen.1a12

Now he enters a reference line with his pointer, and the keyboard. Gradually the screen begins to show the work he is doing–a neat excavation appears in the hillside) revises itself slightly, and revises itself again. After a moment, the architect changes the scene on the screen to an overhead plan view of the site, still showing the excavation. A few minutes of study, and he enters on the keyboard a list of items, checking each one as it appears on the screen, to be studied later.1a13

Ignoring the representation on the display, the architect next begins to enter a series of specifications and data–a six-inch slab floor, twelve-inch concrete walls eight feet high within the excavation, and so on. When he has finished, the revised scene appears on the screen. A structure is taking shape. He examines it, adjusts it, pauses long enough to ask for handbook or catalog information from the clerk at various points, and readjusts accordingly. He often recalls from the “clerk” his working lists of specifications and considerations to refer to them, modify them, or add to them. These lists grow into an ever-more-detailed, interlinked structure, which represents the maturing thought behind the actual design.1a14

Prescribing different planes here and there, curved surfaces occasionally, and moving the whole structure about five feet, he finally has the rough external form of the building balanced nicely with the setting and he is assured that this form is basically compatible with the materials to be used as well as with the function of the building.1a15

Now he begins to enter detailed information about the interior. Here the capability of the clerk to show him any view he wants to examine (a slice of the interior, or how the structure would look from the roadway above) is important. He enters particular fixture designs, and examines them in a particular room. He checks to make sure that sun glare from the windows will not blind a driver on the roadway, and the “clerk” computes the information that one window will reflect strongly onto the roadway between 6 and 6:30 on midsummer mornings.1a16

Next he begins a functional analysis. He has a list of the people who will occupy this building, and the daily sequences of their activities. The “clerk” allows him to follow each in turn, examining how doors swing, where special lighting might be needed. Finally he has the “clerk” combine all of these sequences of activity to indicate spots where traffic is heavy in the building, or where congestion might occur, and to determine what the severest drain on the utilities is likely to be.1a17

All of this information (the building design and its associated “thought structure”) can be stored on a tape to represent the design manual for the building. Loading this tape into his own clerk, another architect, a builder, or the client can maneuver within this design manual to pursue whatever details or insights are of interest to him–and can append special notes that are integrated into the design manual for his own or someone else’s later benefit.1a18

In such a future working relationship between human problem-solver and computer ‘clerk,’ the capability of the computer for executing mathematical processes would be used whenever it was needed. However, the computer has many other capabilities for manipulating and displaying information that can be of significant benefit to the human in nonmathematical processes of planning, organizing, studying, etc. Every person who does his thinking with symbolized concepts (whether in the form of the English language, pictographs, formal logic, or mathematics) should be able to benefit significantly.1a19



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 [Humans using Language, Artifacts, and Methods in which they are Trained] 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….2b1

It need not be just the very sophisticated or formal process capabilities that are added or modified in this redesign. Essentially any of the processes utilized by a representative human today–the processes that he thinks of when he looks ahead to his day’s work–are composite processes of the sort that involve external composing and manipulating of symbols (text, sketches, diagrams, lists, etc.). Many of the external composing and manipulating (modifying, rearranging) processes serve such characteristically “human” activities as playing with forms and relationships to ask what develops, cut-and-try multiple-pass development of an idea, or listing items to reflect on and then rearranging and extending them as thoughts develop.2b4

Existing, or near-future, technology could certainly provide our professional problem-solvers with the artifacts they need to have for duplicating and rearranging text before their eyes, quickly and with a minimum of human effort. Even so apparently minor an advance could yield total changes in an individual’s repertoire hierarchy that would represent a great increase in over-all effectiveness. Normally the necessary equipment would enter the market slowly; changes from the expected would be small, people would change their ways of doing things a little at a time, and only gradually would their accumulated changes create markets for more radical versions of the equipment. Such an evolutionary process has been typical of the way our repertoire hierarchies have grown and formed.2b5

But an active research effort, aimed at exploring and evaluating possible integrated changes throughout the repertoire hierarchy, could greatly accelerate this evolutionary process. The research effort could guide the product development of new artifacts toward taking long-range meaningful steps; simultaneously competitively minded individuals who would respond to demonstrated methods for achieving greater personal effectiveness would create a market for the more radical equipment innovations. The guided evolutionary process could be expected to be considerably more rapid than the traditional one.2b6

The category of “more radical innovations” includes the digital computer as a tool for the personal use of an individual. Here there is not only promise of great flexibility in the composing and rearranging of text and diagrams before the individual’s eyes but also promise of many other process capabilities that can be integrated into the H-LAM/T system’s repertoire hierarchy.



The conceptual structure which we have evolved to orient and guide the pursuit of increasing man’s intellectual effectiveness has been described in the foregoing sections in a rather general and abstract fashion. In this section we shall try to develop more concrete images of these concepts, of some of the future possibilities for augmentation, and of the relationship between these different concepts and possibilities.3a1

It must be borne in mind that a great deal of study and invention is yet to be done in developing the improved augmentation means that are bound to come, and that the examples which we present in this report are intended only to show what is meant by the generalizations which we use, and to provide a feeling on the part of the reader for the richness and power of the improvements we can likely develop in our augmentation means. Many of the examples are realizable today (in fact, some have been realized) and most of the rest are reasonably straight forward extrapolations into the near future. We predict that what actually develops in the new augmentation means will be consistent with our conceptual framework, but that the particulars will be full of surprises….3a2


1. Background3b3

To try to give you (the reader) a specific sort of feel for our thesis in spite of this situation, we shall present the following picture of computer-based augmentation possibilities by describing what might happen if you were being given a personal discussion-demonstration by a friendly fellow (named Joe) who is a trained and experienced user of such an augmentation system within an experimental research program which is several years beyond our present stage. We assume that you approach this demonstration-interview with a background similar to what the previous portion of this report provides–that is, you will have heard or read a set of generalizations and a few rather primitive examples, but you will not yet have been given much of a feel for how a computer-based augmentation system can really help a person.3b3a

Joe understands this and explains that he will do his best to give you the valid conceptual feel that you want–trying to tread the narrow line between being too detailed and losing your over-all view and being too general and not providing you with a solid feel for what goes on. He suggests that you sit and watch him for a while as he pursues some typical work, after which he will do some explaining. You are not particularly flattered by this, since you know that he is just going to be exercising new language and methodology developments on his new artifacts–and after all, the artifacts don’t look a bit different from what you expected–so why should he keep you sitting there as if you were a complete stranger to this stuff? It will just be a matter of “having the computer do some of his symbol-manipulating processes for him so that he can use more powerful concepts and concept-manipulation techniques,” as you have so often been told….3b3b

Then you realized that you couldn’t make any sense at all out of the specific things he was doing, nor of the major part of what you saw on the displays. You could recognize many words, but there were a good number that were obviously special abbreviations of some sort. During the times when a given image or portion of an image remained unchanged long enough for you to study it a bit, you rarely saw anything that looked like a sentence as you were used to seeing one. You were beginning to gather that there were other symbols mixed with the words that might be part of a sentence, and that the different parts of what made a full-thought statement (your feeling about what a sentence is) were not just laid out end to end as you expected. But Joe suddenly cleared the displays and turned to you with a grin that signalled the end of the passive observation period, and also that somehow told you that he knew very well that you now knew that you had needed such a period to shake out some of your limited images and to really realize that a “capability hierarchy” was a rich and vital thing.3b3f

“I guess you noticed that I was using unfamiliar notions, symbols, and processes to go about doing things that were even more unfamiliar to you?” You made a non-committal nod–you saw no reason to admit to him that you hadn’t even been able to tell which of the things he had been doing were to cooperate with which other things–and he continued. “To give you a feel for what goes on, I’m going to start discussing and demonstrating some of the very basic operations and notions I’ve been using. You’ve read the stuff about process and process-capability hierarchies, I’m sure. I know from past experience in explaining radical augmentation systems to people that the new and powerful higher-level capabilities that they are interested in–because basically those are what we are all anxious to improve–can’t really be explained to them without first giving them some understanding of the new and powerful capabilities upon which they are built. This holds true right on down the line to the type of low-level capability that is new and different to them all right, but that they just wouldn’t ordinarily see as being ‘powerful.’ And yet our systems wouldn’t be anywhere near as powerful without them, and a person’s comprehension of the system would be rather shallow if he didn’t have some understanding of these basic capabilities and of the hierarchical structure built up from them to provide the highest-level capabilities.”

7. Team Cooperation3b9

“Let me mention another bonus feature that wasn’t easily foreseen. We have experimented with having several people work together from working stations that can provide inter-communication via their computer or computers. That is, each person is equipped as I am here, with free access to the common working structures. There proves to be a really phenomenal boost in group effectiveness over any previous form of cooperation we have experienced. They can all work on the same symbol structure, wherever they might wish. If any two want to work simultaneously on the same material, they simply duplicate and each starts reshaping his version–and later it is easy to merge their contributions. The whole team can join forces at a moment’s notice to ‘pull together’ on some stubborn little problem, or to make a group decision. Most points of contention are resolved quite naturally, over a period of time, as the developing structure of argument bears out one, or the other, or neither stand.3b9a

“No one can dominate the show, since seldom do you have to ‘listen’ to the person concurrent to the developments he is pursuing– and yet at any time another person can tune in on what he has done and is doing. One can either take immediate personal issue with another about some feature, anywhere in the structure where he might find something done by the other to which he wants to take issue, or he can append his objection and the associated argument there where the disagreement lies, and tag this with a special cue that signals a point of contention that must ultimately be resolved. Any idea of the moment by any member can easily be linked to where it can do some good. 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.3b9b

“We have been experimenting with multi-disciplinary teams and are becoming especially excited over the results. For instance, there is a great reduction of the barrier that their different terminologies used to represent, where one specialist couldn’t really apply his experience, intuition, or conceptual feel very well unless the situation could be stated and framed in his accustomed manner, and yet the others couldn’t work with his terminology. Here, they meet at their concept and terminology interface and work out little shifts in meaning and use which each can find digestible in his system, and which permit quite precise definitions in each system of the terms and concepts in the others. In studying the other’s structuring then, either of them can have his own definitions automatically substituted for the other’s special terms. Reduce this language barrier, and provide the feature of their being able to work in parallel independence on the joint structure, and what seems to result is amplification of their different capabilities.3b9c

“Remember the term, synergesis, that has been associated in the literature with general structuring theory? Well, here is something of an example. Three people working together in this augmented mode seem to be more than three times as effective in solving a complex problem as is one augmented person working alone–and perhaps ten times as effective as three similar men working together without this computer-based augmentation. It is a new and exhilarating experience to be working in this independent-parallel fashion with some good men. We feel that the effect of these augmentation developments upon group methods and group capability is actually going to be more pronounced than the effect upon individuals methods and capabilities, and we are very eager to increase our research effort in that direction.”3b9d


Three principal conclusions may be drawn concerning the significance and implications of the ideas that have been presented.6a

First any possibility for improving the effective utilization of the intellectual power of society’s problem solvers warrants the most serious consideration. This is because man’s problem-solving capability represents possibly the most important resource possessed by a society. The other contenders for first importance are all critically dependent for their development and use upon this resource. Any possibility for evolving an art or science that can couple directly and significantly to the continued development of that resource should warrant doubly serious consideration.6b

Second, the ideas presented are to be considered in both of the above senses: the direct-development sense and the ‘art of development’ sense. To be sure, the possibilities have long-term implications, but their pursuit and initial rewards await us now. By our view, we do not have to wait until we learn how the human mental processes work, we do not have to wait until we learn how to make computers more intelligent or bigger or faster, we can begin developing powerful and economically feasible augmentation systems on the basis of what we now know and have. Pursuit of further basic knowledge and improved machines will continue into the unlimited future, and will want to be integrated into the “art” and its improved augmentation systems–but getting started now will provide not only orientation and stimulation for these pursuits, but will give us improved problem-solving effectiveness with which to carry out the pursuits.6c

Third, it becomes increasingly clear that there should be action now–the sooner the better–action in a number of research communities and on an aggressive scale. We offer a conceptual framework and a plan for action, and we recommend that these be considered carefully as a basis for action If they be considered but found unacceptable, then at least serious and continued effort should be made toward developing a more acceptable conceptual framework within which to view the over-all approach, toward developing a more acceptable plan of action, or both.6d

This is an open plea to researchers and to those who ultimately motivate, finance, or direct them, to turn serious attention toward the possibility of evolving a dynamic discipline that can-treat the problem of improving intellectual effectiveness in a total sense. This discipline should aim at producing a continuous cycle of improvements–increased understanding of the problem, improved means for developing new augmentation systems, and improved augmentation systems that can serve the world’s problem solvers in general and this discipline’s workers in particular. After all, we spend great sums for disciplines aimed at understanding and harnessing nuclear power. Why not consider developing a discipline aimed at understanding and harnessing “neural power?” In the long run, the power of the human intellect is really much the more important of the two.6e

Abridged by Gardner Campbell for Open Learning ’17.

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