I am amazed at the accuracy of Bush’s vision. We have indeed been making tremendous progress in implementing his “blueprint” devised in 1940’s. At least today’s desktop PC with multimedia capabilities and connection to the internet has already fulfilled much of the user interface described in his paper although we still have a long way to achieve full automation of knowledge association and retrieval.
I think his initial motivation was to relieve scientists of tedious and laborious tasks of data collection and retrieval so that they can spend their energy on creative aspect of thinking. For data collection, we have surpassed his imagination on photography. Nowadays almost every cell phone, smart or not, is equipped with a camera. We can take pictures everywhere at any time. Yes, with digital camera, we have “dry photography” though not through chemical process!
He also touched the issues of speech recognition and natural language processing long before the field of artificial intelligence (AI) emerged. Besides, he desired an inference engine, in today’s AI terminology, so that premises can be automatically manipulated according to formal logic.
He continued to ponder the bigger issue of how collected or recorded data can be utilized or consulted. A hypothetical machine, called Memex, was conceived for data storage, retrieval and processing. He thought indexing is an old method of data search and thus proposed the concept of “associative trails” which inspired several pioneering works of Internet, such as Ted Nelson’s hypertext and Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee’s semantic web resembles Bush’s ideal, although Bush never heard of Web 3.0.
In his 1945’s article, Bush not only identified the problems or challenges, he also proposed quite a few visionary “solutions,” some of which have indeed come true. Sixty-eight years later his vision is still a valuable guideline in automation or augmentation of human thought.