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Human-Device Symbiosis, Vision Pro, && The Secure Enclave

J.C.R. Licklider, known as "Lick" to his contemporaries is a titan in the history of technology (one of my favorite topics). Though his name may not be as familiar as household tech brands or their founders, his vision and influence shaped the very landscape of human-computer interaction and networking as we know it today. 

Licklider was a multifaceted individual - a psychologist, mathematician, and computer scientist whose career intersected with key moments in technological history. He served in the Navy during World War II, was on advisory committees for the Air Force in the early days of the Cold War, joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a psychology professor, worked with Norbert Wiener on some of his Cybernetics research, and then went back to the military industrial complex. That's where his interest in human-computer interaction blossomed, leading him to work at both Bolt Beranek and Newman (BB&N) and the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) of the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).

Symbiosis: Humans and Machine as Partners

In 1960, Licklider published his seminal paper, "Man-Computer Symbiosis." This visionary work outlined a future where humans and computers wouldn't simply interact, but rather work together in a mutually beneficial collaboration. He envisioned machines handling tedious tasks, freeing up human minds for creative thought and problem-solving.

Central to his vision was the notion of user-friendly interfaces. Punch cards and complex commands would be replaced by keyboards, displays, and natural language interaction, making computers accessible to a wider audience. This paved the way for the development of personal computers and the intuitive GUIs we use today, including work on the mouse as a human interface device when he helped fund Douglas Engelbart's research, the graphical interface when he worked with Ivan Sutherland, the advent of the interactive computer, and the ARPAnet, which went on to evolve in a way into what we call the Internet.

Beyond Symbiosis: Shaping the Digital Landscape

Licklider's influence extended far beyond "Man-Computer Symbiosis" and other papers and he published and philosophies he espoused. He played a crucial role in:

  • Founding Project MAC at MIT: This research project spearheaded advancements in time-sharing systems and computer graphics, laying the groundwork for modern operating systems and graphical interfaces.

  • Establishing the IPTO at ARPA: This office became a breeding ground for innovation, funding projects like ARPANET (the precursor to the internet) and the Xerox Alto, the first personal computer.

  • Championing Intergalactic Networks: Though not directly involved in its construction, Licklider's early ideas and advocacy for interconnected computer networks paved the way for the internet as we know it.

Legacy: A Vision Realized

J.C.R. Licklider's impact on technology is undeniable. His focus on user-friendly interfaces, human-computer collaboration, and interconnected networks laid the foundation for the digital world we experience today. He may not be a household name, but his visionary thinking continues to shape our present and guide us towards a future where humans and machines can work together in a truly symbiotic way. One reason he's not as famous as a tech giant foudner type is that much of what he worked on was taken to market by others, who often ended up with large PR budgets that could help to buy them reality distortion fields.

Another reason is that many of the ideas of Cybernetics, computing, and the like were part of what some historians call the university-military-industrial-complex of the Cold War 1960s. The mouse replaced the light gun, initially developed to track Russian bombers in the event of a nuclear attack. Interactive, rather than batch processed computing, was developed to direct anti-aircraft defenses, early work on store and forward packets that led to the Internet were meant to provide fault tolerance over public lines in the event of nuclear attacks knocking out routes for data to travel to retaliate. While much of the research became public eventually, it was in the halls of universities that much of the math was worked out and in the defense contractors that the engineering to bring the math to products was realized.

Much of the research being done was also far ahead of its time. Thinking machines, or what we might think of as computers with souls, still don't exist and to be honest, we're probably still as far away as they thought we were at the time. Robots haven't truly freed humans of manual labor in part because they cost more than the laborors they would replace (especially when considering fully loaded costs). There's also just a generation of technology they hadn't thought about - like authentication and authorization.

Stepping Into The Future

Richard Stallman (RMS) famously tried to stand up to the idea that all information wasn't free while working at MIT, where plenty of defense research was still happening (despite spinning out a large portion of that to a non-profit they called Mitre). That was the era where computers were becoming multi-user, no longer did batch processing, and so assets on devices needed to be safeguarded from one another. It was also around the same time that ARPAnet moved from being a military network to being a university network and privatization was first being considered. When the microcomputer and then the Internet came along, it soon became clear that all devices needed passwords, despite the best intentions of RMS.

Then comes the early 2000s and an explosion of passwords for online services, quickly followed by the idea of a password manager, to store those credentials. That led to people leaving devices with credentials unattended and so policies to force sleep on inactivity and technologies like RSA tokens, two factor authentication (2FA), multi-factor authentication (MFA), federated identity providers, (IdPs), and a veritable bevy of other technologies that addressed emergent aspects of threat actors. One such was the idea of a dedicated part of a chip that is meant to just make and check encryption keys. Apple's implementation of that is called the Secure Enclave.

Think of the Secure Enclave as a fortified vault within an Apple device. It's a dedicated chip, separate from the main processor, that's specifically designed to safeguard the most critical data on the device. This includes:

  • Fingerprint and Face ID data: The information used for biometric authentication is stored and processed within the Secure Enclave, ensuring it remains isolated and inaccessible to unauthorized parties.

  • Payment information: When using Apple Pay, credit card details are never transmitted to the merchant; instead, they are securely stored and used for transactions solely within the Secure Enclave.

  • Device passwords: The Secure Enclave handles the encryption and decryption of device passcodes, making it much harder for hackers to gain access.

Just some of the many, many benefits of the Secure Enclave include the following:

  • Enhanced security: By isolating sensitive data from the main operating system, the Secure Enclave makes it extremely difficult for malware or attackers to compromise your information.

  • Hardware-based protection: The Secure Enclave has its own dedicated secure boot process and memory, meaning it cannot be tampered with even if the main operating system is compromised.

  • Performance efficiency: Designed for specific security tasks, the Secure Enclave operates efficiently without impacting the overall performance of your device.

The Latest Symbiosis: Apple's Vision Pro

Apple has confirmed that the Apple Vision Pro does indeed come equipped with a Secure Enclave chip. This is especially crucial for this device, considering its focus on privacy and security. Here's how the Secure Enclave plays a role in the Vision Pro:

  • Optic ID protection: The Enclave safeguards the data used for iris-based authentication, ensuring your unique biometric information remains secure.

  • Secure data processing: Any sensitive data captured by the Vision Pro, such as spatial scans or eye-tracking information, is processed within the Enclave for added protection.

  • App control: The Enclave helps regulate access to the device's sensors and data, preventing unauthorized apps from snooping on your activities.

The Secure Enclave is a fundamental building block of Apple's security architecture for every computing device they make. Its presence in the Apple Vision Pro demonstrates their commitment to safeguarding user privacy and securing data at rest and in transit. While not directly accessible to users, it's a cornerstone of all app developers who write code for security. It also means that at Secret Chest, we can compile our credential provider extension into a net-new platform, and have yet another device that can be used to increase the security of secrets. Now, we can protect a secret behind Face ID, Touch ID, and Optic ID! If anyone is interested in beta testing our initial compiled app, let us know - we're still waiting for our testing devices, so we can't make a lot of promises, but it looks great in the simulator!

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