Nugget #3: “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”

In the introduction to his paper “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” Dr Engelbart writes;

“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.”


I am going to focus on the following nugget from Chapter VI, “Conclusions” of the above mentioned article:

“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.”

In this paragraph, Dr Eilenberg is pleading to “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.” I believe that he is talking about developing computer science and, in particular, artificial intelligence as evidenced from this exert: “Why not consider developing a discipline aimed at understanding and harnessing neural power?”

It seems that Dr Eilenberg’s pleas where answered. During the 1980’s computer science decisively broke away from mathematics establishing itself as an important new discipline. It created millions of new jobs and advanced tremendously during the past two decades. A computer on a scientist’s or teacher’s desk become a must during 1990’s. Computer science is also a field that created most of the recent billionaires. In fact, the field is so popular today that there are thousands of investors standing by, ready to invest money to start-up companies they thing have a potential to become the next Microsoft, Google, Facebook or Instagram. Hence, the situation in computer science today is very different from that in 1962.

I believe, we can safely say, that now-a-days it is almost impossible to effectively conduct research without the help of a computer. This is in particular true for sciences. Mathematicians, physicists, biologists, chemists, engineers and many other, rely heavily of computer simulations in their research and designs. For instance, one can hardly imagine a medicine without computer tomography. In architecture, traditional drafting has been completely replaced by AutoCAD. Visual artists and fashion designers use computer created images in their artworks; see for instance T-shirts with fractal inspired designs or fractal inspired dresses. Fractals are mathematical objects that have a self-similarity property in the sense that by magnifying these objects one sees the same, and this process never ends, like a valley inside a valley inside a valley ….

A fractal image

We encounter fractals everywhere in nature: leaves, trees, plants, landscapes, insect designs, shells, river banks, mountain ranges, …

Broccoli-like fractal


Fractal landscape
fractal landscape

Real Landscape

Dr. Engelbart article is about improving problem solving ability of humans. Many problems today are first attacked by the means of computer simulation. This technique allows humans to perform billions of steps in one second and see results of computations that the researchers would never be able to complete in there lifetime if computers were not invented. This is already a tremendous help.
Moreover, several powerful languages for symbolic manipulation have been created, notably Mathematica, Maple and MatLab. These languages are suited for creating programs for verifying mathematical hypotheses, rapid numerical simulations, visualizing three dimensional mathematical object. These languages have build in solvers for functional differential and integral equations and unlike a hand held calculators, can work with unlimited precision (it is easy, say, to compute pi to 1 million decimal digits – this task takes about one second on an average laptop). A very exciting development in programming languages that may have fundamental implications on future design of programming languages is the research program called “Univalent Foundations of Mathematics“. The paper of Dr Engelbart is on many levels linked to the two older publication that we discussed previously in this course: “As We May Think” by Vannevar Bush and “Man-Computer Symbiosis” by J. C. R. Licklider. Many of my fellow students and I have already discussed the dangers of misuse of technology in our two previous nugget assignments about papers of Dr Bush and Dr Licklider and so there is no need to repeat these ideas here again. Webpages such a Wikipedia,, JSTOR are valuable free sources of information for scientists and they materialize (at least virtually :)) many of the ideas the Dr’s Bush, Licklider and Engelbart dreamed about. I should also not forget to mention the Google company which may be possibly the biggest contributor to collective happiness of internet users, by providing the best search engine to date and a plethora of free applications, some of which we are using in this course.

In the last two sentences of the nugget, Dr Engelbert makes a comparison between understanding and harnessing nuclear power and developing human intellect. He writes: “In the long run, the power of the human intellect is really much the more important of the two.” I cannot agree more with his statement. Since 1940 we have made tremendous advances in understanding and utilizing nuclear power. But these advances would not be possible without high speed supercomputers equipped with sophisticated algorithms and modelling software that were introduced by computer science. Without advanced artificial intelligence, man-made spacecrafts would not be able to land on Venus or Mars, because a radio signal from earth takes several minutes to reach these planets. Enhancing human intellect is the basis for progress of our civilization. It can be done in one of the two ways. We either manipulate our genes the right way to get smarter or we create artificial intelligence systems with which we can efficiently communicate and these will serve as an extension of our brains. Currently, gene therapy is a field which is still in diapers, and not much is understood. So, at least for some time, we will have to stick with enhancing our capabilities by creating smarter computers and developing more effective ways of communication between them and humans.

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