The Fifth Generation: Artificial Intelligence and Japan’s Computer Challenge to the World by Edward A. Feigenbaum and Pamela McCorduck; Addison-Wesley; Reading, MA.
The Rise of the Computer State by David Burnham; Random House; New York.
A few years ago, CB radio antennae sprouted on the roofs and trunks of autos like alien growths from an average Holly wood movie. People began to affect drawls, and instead of asking someone for his or her astrological sign, inquired about that person’s “handle.” Formulations like “Silver Fox,” “Sugar Daddy,” “BigMomma,” and the like followed. When stories of vacations were recited, the going became the major topic and the arriving and staying took a pathetic second place; listeners were regaled with tales of “convoys” and “Smokeys” and “putting the hammer down.” Commercial radio stations played tunes centered on the wonders of “trucking” with a CB, and Hollywood quickly cranked out a few feature films on the subject. Diet books were pushed off the shelves at bookstores and off of the racks at grocery markets by texts that included CB codes and other handy tidbits of information. The most popular channel in the country became channel 19, and it wasn’t on the dial of a television. “Good buddies” everywhere knew where to tune in. If some skeptic were to mutter something about how CB’s were nothing more than a step up from the fur dice that once dangled from rearview mirrors or the cats mounted on rear decks with red eyes that were lighted when the brake pedal was de pressed, he was overpowered with stories about the value of the radios, about how the devices were instrumental in getting medical assistance to accident victims and in preventing thugs from victimizing stranded motorists. It seemed as if CB’s were here to stay. But then people began to tire of asking for someone’s “20” ( i.e., location) and all of the “ratchet jawing” that the mere existence of a CB below a dashboard seemed to demand became an exercise in tedium. The antennae wilted as Wells’s Martians expired. CB’s remained where they essentially originated and where they be long: in the cabs of long-distance truck drivers.
Those clear-eyed observers who saw through the CB craze can now be beard saying similar things about borne computers. And as Texas Instruments pulls out of the market (the same move it made when the flash of digital watches began to fade) and J.C. Penney stops selling home computers, the skeptics find themselves with what can be interpreted as industry support for their contention that computers are CB’s by another name. To a certain extent, they are correct. While a home computer has a degree of applicability in any given household, it isn’t quite the panacea that those marketing the device claim that it is. One can make a household budget with a computer, the right program, and a whole raft of figures and file recipes with peripheral memory equipment (typically an option); the same things can be done with paper and pencil, often in a more expeditious manner. Then there’s the word-processing capability of home computers which, proponents claim, makes the gadgets far superior to typewriters. Word processors do have a leg up on typewriters— but how many people buy a special table on which to mount their typewriters and how many of those who do that use their typewriter with a frequency that would justify spending at least some $300 on word processing? Computerized budget makers, recipe hoarders, and would-be Hemingways are few and far between, so the capability of playing video games without needing quarters or tokens is touted. And lest anyone feels too sybaritic about blowing a chunk of the (non-computerized) household budget on a sophisticated toy, the ad men are soothing with the claim that computers are good for the kids: they will need to be “computer literate” in the world of tomorrow that’s developing today. As the dust settles on all of those high-tech keyboards and as TV’s are liberated from the multicolored wires, the skeptics smile. But their satisfaction will be short lived.
Home computers are not exactly like CB’s. The faddish nature of both is the same, but the principle behind home computers (i.e., that the computer is a tool) is much more thorough and its effect will be, in the not-so-distant future, more pervasive than any technological development has been in recent memory. This is not to say that one of those little gems that comes with a rebate form is going to cause a sea change in daily living, for those devices will probably end up with the fur dice, tail-light kittys, and CB radios. As Edward A. Feigenbaum and Pamela McCorduck point out in The Fifth Generation: Artificial Intelligence and Japan’s Computer Challenge to the World, Japanese are in the midst of a project that, if all goes as expected, will result in computers that will make the best and brightest American devices seem somewhat retarded. What’s more, the Japanese devices won’t be limited to use in large organizations and industries, but will be “inexpensive and reliable enough to be used everywhere, in offices, factories, restaurants, shops, farms, and fisheries, and of course, homes.” Although the title of the book sounds as bombastic as those about UFO’s, pyramid power, and magic diets, there is substance to it. As the situation in the automobile industry clearly shows, the Japanese are not the mere copycats that they were once popularly characterized as being; the proverbial shoe is on the other foot. When the Japanese launch a project to enter a market, they do so with great seriousness: consider 35-mm cameras, wrist watches, stereo equipment, TV’s. Now their sights are set on computers. Not only are they working on conventional types, but they are developing a more sophisticated system that could, within 10 years, make Japan the information powerhouse nonpareil.
The use of the word Japanese here is deliberate and is meant to signify that the effort is not being made by a single con cern, not just by an Oriental IBM or Control Data Corporation. In1982, the Minis try of International Trade and Industry (MIT!), that bugbear of American man agers, decided to launch a project to develop what are designated fifth generation computer systems. The preceding generations are, in order: electronic-vacuum tube, transistorized, integrated circuit, and very large-scale integrated (VSLI) computers. The super-fast computers of today and the ones that are in development at the leading American companies are, mainly, VSLI types. Exactly how any of these computers operate is of little concern here. The point is simply that the Japanese government, recognizing that information processing is be coming a multibillion dollar operation, figured that Japan must solidify its position as an exporter. As it must import raw materials for manufacturing and agricultural products for eating, superior computer hardware and software are seen as ideal products—especially if they’re better than those offered by anyone else. MITI organized the Institute for New Generation Computer Technology (ICOT) which is backed by Fujitsu, Hitachi, Nippon Electric Corporation, Mitsubishi, Oki, Sharp, and Toshiba; Nippon Telephone and Telegraph and MITI’s Electrotechnical Laboratory are also cooperating. The effort at ICOT is to build that better computer for the 1990’s.
Conventional computers are wonders at processing data and computing; they don’t “think.” What the Japanese aim to build is so different that it has a specific name, KIPS: Knowledge Information Processing System. Feigenbaum and McCorduck define KIPS as a computer that will have “symbolic inference capabilities, coupled with very large knowledge bases, and superb human interfaces, all combined with high processing speeds.” People can argue until they are blue in the face about whether an electronic device can think or reason, about whether the concept of artificial intelligence isn’t merely an escapee from science fiction pulps. (Indeed, the authors point out that Americans tend to philosophize about such matters while the Japanese are busy with engineering.) But the next generation of computers will do something that is very much like thinking, and this is not mere speculation, for currently existing “expert systems” are awfully close. Essentially, an expert system consists of a knowledge base, an inference system, and an input/output system. Using a medical analogy, Feigenbaum and McCorduck explain, “The knowledge base you use is what you learned in medical school and in the years of internship, residency, specialization, and practice. It’s what you learn in the journals. It consists of fuels, prejudices, beliefs, and perhaps most important, heuristic knowledge.” Heuristics are rules of thumb, ways that a doctor, al most automatically, applies what he has in his head to the problem at hand. The reason that the system is called an expert system is because the facts and the heuristics are gleaned from living, breathing experts, like medical doctors. The inference system is where the ’’think ing” is done. The input/output system not only performs the activities that its name implies, but it also has the capability of explaining why the system as a whole came to a particular conclusion. One ex pert system, at the University of Pittsburgh, is called INTERNIST/CADUCEUS; it performs diagnoses in internal medicine. According to the authors, it “covers more than 80 percent of all internal medicine; its knowledge base encompasses about 500 diseases and more than 3500 manifestations of disease.” Imagine what this means: a patient’s history, vital signs, prescribed drugs, and other data can be entered into the system and it’s likely that the correct diagnosis and treatment will be produced by the system. The further development of INTERNIST/CADUCEUS won’t necessarily lead to a situation where in physicians line up with auto workers at unemployment offices; it will permit medicine to reach areas (through remote devices) where it’s currently in short supply, whether it be the outback or outer space. Other expert systems exist for fields including bioengineering, chemistry, computing, and engineering.
All of this may sound as if the skeptics are right: CB’s are for truckers, and computers are for technologists. So far, that’s correct (excepting, of course, those rogues who use their home models), but then the objective of ICOT must be considered. Certainly, it will have to further develop existing equipment and create some sizable innovations, but given the project participants, the track record of the Japanese in the various before mentioned fields, and the fact that Japan will require new products to maintain ( or surpass) its position in the world market, KIPS doesn’t sound like blue-sky thinking—and as any American industrialist will acknowledge, the Japanese are extremely applications-oriented. What’s more, the Japanese, given their meager natural resources, have come to recognize that it’s imperative that they do more than less. One solution that they have capitalized upon is applying thinking to resources thought takes precedence over force. The people in the country (those who really have to stretch the less) recognize this fact. As mentioned, KIPS is projected to be accessible to the home market. It could be used as a roomful of experts waiting to answer questions about subjects from astrophysics to plumbing; what’s more, it will not only be able to answer questions, but will be interactive in such a way that it will help lead the questioner to formulate the right questions. On the other hand, it could be used as an arcade game to end all arcade games. !t will be a tool or a toy. Those who recognize that knowledge is power will make the most of KIPS; the rest will fall behind—way behind. Feigenbaum and McCorduck are to the point: “For former flower children and other blithe spirits who crashed to earth during the economic contractions of the 1970’s, the lessons Japan has to teach must seem a bit dreary: diligence, study, application, duty, responsibility, suppleness, patriotism, and playing the game with intensity.” Given a home KIPS, it’s not likely that a young man or woman in Japan would spend an inordinate amount of time blasting imaginary aliens with it; there seems to be a recognition that there is a bona fide country that needs defend ing.The same cannot be said about many in the United States.
Some of the most startling evidence of this comes through in The Rise of the Computer State by David Burnham. Burnham’s resume includes an employment record at UPI, Newsweek, CBS, and the New York Times. If Feigenbaum and McCorduck can be considered manic with regard to their optimism about KIPS (and, indeed, their enthusiasm ultimately makes them somewhat suspect), then Burnham can be considered depressive because of the anxiety he feels about technology: he sees it looming like some evil creature in a Marvel comic. Although computer figures in the title of his book and is sprinkled throughout the pages like shards of glass that are meant to shred the feet of the barefoot innocents who traverse the course (once they’re through it, they’ll never want to get anywhere near the objects of Burnham’s derision), virtually anything that smacks of sophistication is the enemy. CB radios are not singled out for attack, though they could be: he could figure them as a diabolical web stretching over the highways and byways, one that the State could use to ensnare unsuspecting motorists for some never defined reasons. If it’s more technologically complex than a table lamp, then it’s suspect and somehow be comes a computer. For example, Burnham cites the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and states, “The Census Bureau data, recorded on punch cards that could be quickly tabulated by a kind of mechanical computer,” was instrumental. Clearly, one is to suppose, the “data,” “punch cards” and “computer” are at the heart of the matter. Somehow, the modifier “a kind of mechanical” slips by in the emotionally charged discourse. As previously mentioned, the electronic vacuum tube computer formed the first generation. It’s generally accepted that the first computer is ENIAC, which made its debut in 1946—after the war. But that doesn’t stop Burnham, for he quickly moves on to indict telephones and cable television. His thesis is that the world that George Orwell described in 1984 is aborning, that the equipment that is being put in place by organizations, utilities, hospitals, and industries will make us all readily monitored and manipulate binary digits in a Master Computer. Americans are to be gravely concerned (not thankful) that the National Security Agency has massive computers. Burnham warns, “Every day, in almost every area of culture and commerce, systems and procedures are being adopted that make it easier and easier for the NSA to dominate our society should it ever decide such action is necessary.” Tacit is that it probably will find it necessary. Burnham rarely explains, though he always implies. One might raise a similar argument: it’s dangerous to equip the U.S. Army with contemporary weapons for they will make it easier for the generals to stage a coup should they decide such action is necessary. The disturbing thing is that Burnham might agree. Burnham insists that the little guy will be helpless in the face of the computer power massed by all of the three-digit organizations (e.g., NSA, CIA, FBI, IRS, AT&T, IBM, etc.). I wonder how he explains teenage computer hackers?
One of the most unusual things about Burnham is that he is awfully afraid of in formation (a condition that makes his chosen profession seem to be an odd one, until one considers his places of employ). Presumably, less skittish Americans would feel good knowing that law enforcement agencies have data—computerized or otherwise—that aid them in stopping crimes or in seeing that criminals are apprehended, that welfare agencies have the information that permits them to spot some of those who are try ing to bilk the system, that the telephone company can (usually) make sure that one isn’t billed for someone else’s call to Pago Pago. Knowing such things scares the pants off of Burnham as well as those of Walter Cronkite, who intones in the foreword, “If—or is it when?—these computers are permitted to talk to one another, when they are interlinked, they can spew out a roomful of data on each of us that will leave us naked before who ever gains access to the information.” “Whoever” is, of course, Big Brother. Not only are there numerous references to Orwell throughout the book, there is even a drawing of the big guy on the dust jacket.
Computers can be used for all sorts of evil, vicious things. Computers are operated by people, and as Feigenbaum and McCorduck point out, “The intelligent machine—the knowledge information processor, the expert system, what ever—demands intelligent users.” Americans can become intelligent users and support the efforts that are being made by public and private organizations to keep this country up to speed in the field of computers-not for the sake of computers, but for the support of free, healthy, and productive people, for the sake of a viable polity in the 1990’s and beyond. Or, Americans can act like Burn ham and Cronkite and become heirs to those who once warned about the evils of electricity.