#29 On the referendum & #4c on Expertise: On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy

Post-Brexit Britain should be considering the intersection of 1) ARPA/PARC-style science research and ‘systems management’ for managing complex projects with 2) the reform of government institutions so that high performance teams — with different education/training (‘Tetlock processes’) and tools (including data science and visualisations of interactive models of complex systems) — can make ‘better decisions in a complex world’.  

This paper examines the ARPA/PARC vision for computing and the nature of the two organisations. In the 1960s visionaries such as Joseph Licklider, Robert Taylor and Doug Engelbart developed a vision of networked interactive computing that provided the foundation not just for new technologies but for whole new industries. Licklider, Sutherland, Taylor et al provided a model (ARPA) for how science funding can work. Taylor provided a model (PARC) of how to manage a team of extremely talented people who turned a profound vision into reality. The original motivation for the vision of networked interactive computing was to help humans make good decisions in a complex world.

This story suggests ideas about how to make big improvements in the world with very few resources if they are structured right. From a British perspective it also suggests ideas about what post-Brexit Britain should do to help itself and the world and how it might be possible to force some sort of ‘phase transition’ on the rotten Westminster/Whitehall system.

For the PDF of the paper click HERE. Please correct errors with page numbers below. I will update it after feedback.

Further Reading

The Dream Machine.

Dealers of Lightning.

‘Sketchpad: A man-machine graphical communication system’, Ivan Sutherland 1963.

Oral history interview with Sutherland, head of ARPA’s IPTO division 1963-5.

This link has these seminal papers:

  • Man-Computer Symbiosis, Licklider (1960)
  • The computer as a communications device, Licklider & Taylor (1968)

Watch Alan Kay explain how to invent the future to YCombinator classes HERE and HERE.  

HERE for Kay quotes from emails with Bret Victor.

HERE for Kay’s paper on PARC, The Power of the Context.

Kay’s Early History of Smalltalk.

HERE for a conversation between Kay and Engelbart.

Alan Kay’s tribute to Ted Nelson at “Intertwingled” Fest (an Alto using Smalltalk).

Personal Distributed Computing: The Alto and Ethernet Software1, Butler Lampson. 

You and Your Research, Richard Hamming.

AI nationalism, essay by Ian Hogarth. This concerns implications of AI for geopolitics.

Drones go to work, Chris Anderson (one of the pioneers of commercial drones). This explains the economics of the drone industry.

Meditations on Moloch, Scott Alexander. This is an extremely good essay in general about deep problems with our institutions.

Intelligence Explosion Microeconomics, Yudkowsky.

Autonomous technology and the greater human good. Omohundro.

Can intelligence explode? Hutter.

For the issue of IQ, genetics and the distribution of talent (and much much more), cf. Steve Hsu’s brilliant blog.

Bret Victor.

Michael Nielsen.

For some pre-history on computers, cf. The birth of computational thinking (some of the history of computing devices before the Turing/von Neumann revolution) and The crisis of mathematical paradoxes, Gödel, Turing and the basis of computing (some of the history of ideas about mathematical foundations and logic such as the famous papers by Gödel and Turing in the 1930s)

Part I of this series of blogs is HERE.

Part II on the emergence of ‘systems management’, how George Mueller used it to put man on the moon, and a checklist of how successful management of complex projects is systematically different to how Whitehall works is HERE.

14 thoughts on “#29 On the referendum & #4c on Expertise: On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy

  1. Thanks for this – an absolutely fascinating read. I’ve been a fan of Kay, Engelbart, Nelson, Bush et al for a long while now. You’ve explained really cogently how the culture you describe should be applied to science funding today.


  2. “You can maybe convince of something’s interest and something’s importance, but you can not tell them what to do and get good research”.

    how does China reconcile its tradition of authoritarian centralisation and intellectual and social conformity with the critical, creative thinking needed for the scientific and technological paradigm shifts that you refer to?


  3. Thanks for this. As always an invaluable piece.

    One hopefully useful comment:

    For a more accessible/intuitive name for ‘Class-2 arguments’ I am a fan of the idea of ‘steelmanning’ (as opposed to straw manning). I wonder if the approach is easier to promote with this name instead of the “technical-sounding” former one?


  4. errata that I spotted:
    p. 28 – one use of “Heilmeyer” instead of Heilmeier.
    p. 6 + p. 28 – use of TMD instead of TDM as acronym for The Dream Machine.

    thrilling stuff to read.

    of potential interest to you, particularly given the geopolitical AI link – assange recently proposed the nation-state arms race to creating AI without any restrictions is a potential solution to fermi’s paradox (AI is a terminal phase for every complex civilization, not necessarily just because of ‘killer robots’ but because of the rapidly shifting balance of power created by those with the technological lead).


  5. I’ll remember this, forever: ‘Class-2 arguments’: where both sides can explain the other person’s view to the other person’s satisfaction (Taylor).


  6. In your work Complexity and Prediction, Part 5, you say the twin prime conjecture was proved in 2013. It has not been proved. The TPC states that there are infinitely many primes that are 2 smaller than other primes, such as 3 (2 smaller than 5) and 15 (2 smaller than 17).


    • I mean 17 (2 smaller than 19). 15 is composite 🙂 But despite that silly typing error I just made, I’m right when I say the TPC has not been proved.


  7. Watched the brexit programme from the perspective of an academic who specialises in decision theory and strategy -could see bayes theory and frequentist elements throughout . It was like your team were quadrillla unlocking the “ attitudinal gas “ underlying the British political system .would love to make contact .. currently studying the role of AI in decision making .

    Ps I too worked with government and saw their decision processes from the inside .. we have much in common .


  8. “Please correct errors with page numbers below. I will update it after feedback”

    Page 28, last paragraph, line 4.
    I think “who thinks TMD is good” should be “who thinks TDM is good”

    P.S. great read so far


  9. Pingback: On the referendum #29: Genetics, genomics, predictions & ‘the Gretzky game’ — a chance for Britain to help the world – Dominic Cummings's Blog

  10. Pingback: On the referendum #31: Project Maven, procurement, lollapalooza results & nuclear/AGI safety – Dominic Cummings's Blog

  11. Pingback: On the referendum #32: Science/productivity — a) small teams are more disruptive, b) ‘science is becoming far less efficient’ – Dominic Cummings's Blog

  12. Pingback: On the referendum #33: High performance government, ‘cognitive technologies’, Michael Nielsen, Bret Victor, & ‘Seeing Rooms’ – Dominic Cummings's Blog

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