“As We May Think” is an essay written by Vannevar Bush and published in The Atlantic in 1945. The article amazingly predicts the digital transformation of society many years later. Bush notes that as the totality of human knowledge increases, society becomes increasingly inefficient in its use. He recognized that scientists in particular need better ways to manage the accelerating explosion of data so that they can rapidly and consistently find critical information relevant to their work.
Bush expresses astonishingly visionary thoughts regarding how the increasing vast amount of data could be stored, organized, and more easily retrieved by those who could benefit from it. He describes a futuristic machine for his time that he termed a “memex” which he describes as a work station which could store books, records, information, and communications. Bush’s memex is a clear forerunner of our modern-day computer. Remarkably, his vision predicted features that what we know today as hyperlinks and metadata. The memex would be astonishingly efficient for researchers by facilitating very rapid retrieval of related data and allow for easy sharing of information similar to the World Wide Web today.
Mr. Bush was an engineer who played a leading role in the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb. I greatly admire how Bush completely switched gears from the wartime effort to endeavors that would massively help mankind. His ideas regarding making knowledge more accessible would turn out to be transformational for generations to come.
Today perhaps more than ever we need transformational thinkers like Bush. In Bush’s area of focus, improving accessibility and the use of information, a hot area today continues to be how to best use the massive amount of available information for society’s benefit. There is a race to effectively use “big data” in many areas, but I believe we are moving too slowly. The human genome can now be sequenced, allowing scientists to look for slight differences in gene sequences that can provide clues to potential cures for diseases. But we are not progressing fast enough; mankind needs more cures now. We need someone like Bush to show us how to use this “big data” much more effectively. In the field of artificial intelligence (AI), we need people who can apply AI to critical needs for society, such as to diagnose diseases like cancer much earlier at a time that they can be cured, or to help keep us safe from terror threats. Or perhaps AI can be applied to solve conflicts or even fight wars.
Bush’s amazing vision is an inspiration and call to action for us today. For our sake and future generations, we must succeed.