Computer Chronicles Revisited, Part 24 — Edward Feigenbaum

Computer Chronicles Revisited, Part 24 — Edward Feigenbaum
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For this episode, I’m going to handle things a bit differently. There was only a single guest–Stanford University computer science professor Edward Feigenbaum–and the subject is one that, quite frankly, does not strike me as all that interesting. So rather than do an extended point-by-point recap of the episode, I’m just going to summarize in broad strokes. Trust me, if you had watched the episode, you’d thank me.

Stanford Professor Discusses AI, Future of Japanese Computing Initiative

You may recall that Feigenbaum appeared in an earlier episode, which I recapped in Part 20. That clip was actually taken from the start of his interview from this episode. And really, this episode covers a lot of the same ground, which focused on knowledge-based or “expert” computer systems. Here, Feigenbaum talked about the state of such systems and the potential threat from Japan’s Fifth Generation computer project.

The Fifth Generation was the term used by Feigenbaum and others to describe to an initiative by the Japanese government to “develop computers with reasoning capabilities, rather than the ability to merely perform calculations,” according to a 1992 article in The New York Times. Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry started the 10-year Fifth Generation program in 1982 to basically spur breakthroughs in artificial intelligence.

Speaking with Stewart Cheifet and Gary Kildall–as well as Herbert Lechner, who was along for the ride–Feigenbaum explained that work in the United States on “expert systems” had been going on since about 1965, the beginning of the second decade in AI research. At that time, the emphasis was on “generality,” or the ability of a program to shift its attention from one area to another easily, rather than speed and performance. But the more current research done by people at Stanford focused on creating expert programs, which required encoding a great deal of knowledge about a field into the machine.

Feigenbaum said now–in late 1983–we were starting to see the industrialization of AI, similar to the transition that took place with computing itself during the late 1940s and 1950s, when the technology moved out of the laboratory and into practical uses. For example, he said the University of Pittsburgh now had a “spectacular program” used for clinical diagnosis that knew about 500 different diseases and 3,500 different signs and symptoms.

After a lengthy demonstration of a program developed by Feigenbaum to help the French national oil company Elf Aquitane identify drilling locations, the conversation eventually shifted to Fifth Generation computers. Feigenbaum co-authored a book on this subject with Pamela McCorduck called, appropriately, The Fifth Generation–Artificial Intelligence and Japan’s Computer Challenge to the World. He said the Japanese strategy was interesting in that they currently lacked market share in the worldwide computer market. It was difficult to gain market share due to IBM’s dominance. So what you to had to do was gain a position in an area where IBM has not been active–and that was artificial intelligence. The Japanese goal was therefore to get there first and fast so that could get a large chunk of the AI/expert systems market before IBM woke up.

Right now, Feigenbaum said, the United States was clearly ahead of the Japanese when it came to computers. But he thought with this new dedicated effort via the Fifth Generation project, the U.S. computer manufacturers had to move pretty fast if they wanted to stay ahead.

Coleco Launches Adam, Apple Wins Lawsuit Against Clonemaker

Stewart Cheifet presented this week’s “Random Access” segment, which I’m dating at sometime during October 1983.

  • Continuing our “United States vs. Japan” theme, Cheifet said there was apparently a major effort underway by American computer chip manufacturers to regain their lead over their Japanese counterparts. The U.S. government was working with a newly formed trade group, the Semiconductor Research Corporation, which included 20 major companies that planned to produce the world’s first 4 MB computer chip by 1988. Cheifet noted that America used to control the 16 KB market but the Japanese now dominated the 64 KB market.
  • That said, the “boom times” were back for chip manufacturing. Cheifet said that U.S. companies were on track to sell $11 billion worth of semiconductors in 1983–an increase of 16 percent over 1982.
  • The board of directors at Fortune Systems Corporation, a Silicon Valley computer manufacturer, ousted CEO and founder Gary Friedman, after the company suffered a $3 million loss in the previous quarter and its stock price dropped from a high of $22 per share to a current low of $8.50.
  • Telephone company MCI was planning to challenge the U.S. Postal Service with its new MCI Mail service for personal computers. MCI said the system would interface with the Post Office and various courier services so that a user could send electronic mail to people who did not own computers.
  • Coleco showed off a production version of its Adam computer to the Boston Computer Society. Cheifet noted that early reports described the Adam as a “not too sophisticated” word processor, but Coleco hinted there would be an additional utility pack.
  • Cheifet said that people who owned portable computers and wanted to use them while flying might want to check with their airline first. Many computer users were being told they could not use such devices as there were concerns about radio interference with the navigation systems of airplanes. The Los Angeles Times reported that TWA and Republic Airlines were okay with passengers using portable computers, but they were banned on United, PSA, Eastern, Continental, and Western Airlines had banned their use.
  • Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, who sold the company to Warner Communications in 1976, was planning a comeback following the expiration of his seven-year non-compete agreement. Cheifet said the rumors were that Bushnell would soon be coming out with “twin laserdisc” video games and he was working on robots to serve pizza at his Pizza Time Theatre chain of restaurants.
  • The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia announced a decision a few weeks ago in Apple’s lawsuit against Franklin Computers. Franklin produced the ACE 100, an Apple II-compatible personal computer. Apple alleged the ACE 100 infringed upon its copyrighted operating system. The Third Circuit agreed with Apple’s position that a computer program contained on a silicon chip was copyrightable material.
  • Lotus 1-2-3 was the top-selling business software program. Cheifet said during the first six months of 1983, Lotus Corporation sold more than $12 million worth of its popular spreadsheet program. And success was breeding competition: At least 30 software companies announced plans for their own “improved” versions of 1-2-3.
  • Finally, Cheifet said, some advertising companies were now thinking about placing ads on software disks or computer networks such as the Dow Jones information service. The early ads would likely be text only and promote software, computer magazines, and financial services.

The Five Generations of Computers

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way–what did “Fifth Generation” mean? Or put another way, what were the first four generations. The simple explanation is as follows:

  • First-generation computers (mid-1940) had vacuum tubes.
  • Second-generation computers (mid-1950s) had transistors.
  • Third-generation computers (mid-1960s) had integrated circuits, i.e., silicon chips with multiple transistors.
  • Fourth-generation computers (mid-1970s) were basically the early personal computers.

The term “Fifth Generation” is now used to refer to essentially any computer developed after 1980. In terms of the Japanese Fifth Generation project, it was, as described by the aforementioned New York Times article, a 10-year project that largely failed to yield significant commercial results. Indeed, Edward Feigenbaum told the Times that while the Japanese government’s investment had yielded some interesting computer designs and software, in the end “no one is using the technology.”

And contrary to the fears raised by Feigenbaum and others that the Fifth Generation project represented an existential threat by the Japanese to U.S. computer dominance, the Times noted that “most American computer scientists and executives have long since stopped paying attention to the Fifth Generation project.” The Times added that American computer scientists–presumably including Feigenbaum–had overstated the Japanese threat “[i]n order to coax more support from the United States Government for computer science research.”

Feigenbaum Joined the Air Force (in His Late 50s!)

A decade after his Computer Chronicles appearance, Edward Feigenbaum served a three-year stint as chief scientist of the United States Air Force during the Clinton administration. It was no doubt a highlight in a career that began when he was named one of the original members of Stanford University’s computer science faculty in 1965. At Stanford, Feigenbaum developed (with Joshua Lederberg) one of the first expert systems projects called DENDRAL. He would go on to serve as chairman of Stanford’s computer science department and director of its Computer Center. He also co-founded three AI-related startups, including IntelliCorp, which was featured in a previously reviewed Computer Chronicles episode.

Feigenbaum retired from the Stanford faculty in 2000. He turned 85 this past January.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive.
  • Ironically, IBM today is primarily known today for its work in AI systems like Watson, a turnaround from its relative lack of interest back in 1983 at the height of the company’s personal computer and mainframe dominance.
  • I’d never heard of Fortune Systems before. Its signature product was the Fortune 32:16, described by Old-Computers.com as “the first integrated Unix-based system,” which was released in 1982 and cost $9,000 for a mullti-user configuration including a 10 MB hard drive and 512 KB of memory.
  • As for the Franklin ACE 100, I actually had heard of that machine before, thanks to this YouTube video by Adrian Black.
  • The Coleco Adam did not fare well on the market, lasting only two years before it was discontinued in 1985.
  • If Nolan Bushnell’s “Pizza Time Theatre” featuring robots and arcade games sounds awfully familiar–yup, that’s Chuck E. Cheese. Bushenll opened the first Pizza Time Theatre in San Jose in 1977 when he was still at Atari. Bushnell later bought back the rights to the concept from Warner Communications and proceeded to franchise Chuck E. Cheese. But a few months after this Chronicles episode aired, Bushnell was forced to file for Chapter 11 and sold the company to his former business partner.
  • As we learned in the last post, Lotus did not take too kindly to all those 1-2-3 clones.
  • During Stewart Cheifet’s “Random Access” item on semiconductor sales, they actually displayed a graphic that said “ELEVEN BILLION DOLLARS.” I made it the thumbnail for this post because that just made me laugh.
  • Again, I apologize for not doing my usual full-length recap of the episode. But it’s difficult to recap what was basically just a long monologue by Edward Feigenbaum. He just kept talking in one long incredibly unbroken sentence moving from topic to topic so that no one had a chance to interrupt, it was really quite hypnotic…

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