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The Fifth Generation Project in Japan

The Japanese Fifth Generation Project in computer technology was an attempt to leapfrog Western computer expertise and create an entirely new computer technology. Although the generation terminology is a bit murky, there was the general perception that there had been a a number of generations of computer design and the accompanying operating methods.

The first generation was the mainframe computers created by Sperry Rand and IBM during and after World War II. They were hard-wired to carry out the desired sequence of computations. John Von Neumann and Herman Goldstine showed how hard wiring could be replaced by an internally stored program. Machine language program was feasible but oh so tedious. Assembly language programming was a great advance in its day. Mnemonic commands could be assembled and compiled into the machine language coding required by the computers. But assembly language programming was still almost unbearably tedious so when John Bachus and his group created Fortran (short for Formula Translation) and John McCarthy created LISP (short for List Processing) it was a whole new day in computer technology, a new generation. Fortran became the language for routine number crunching and still is to some extent despite the development of other more sophisticated computer languages. McCarthy's LISP had an entirely different career. It was founded upon a bit of esoteric mathematics called the Lambda Calculus. LISP had a value at the fringes of computer technology, in particular for what became known as Artificial Intelligence or AI. AI researchers in the U.S. made LISP their standard. While was LISP was mathematically sophisticated it was almost terminally klutzy in its terminology. Standard operations such as finding the head of a list and the tail of a list were known as CAR and CDR, for cumulative additive register and cumulative decrement register. Outsiders could easily mistake the klutziness of LISP for primitiveness. In Europe a new computer language was developed called PROLOG (short for logic programming) that was slicker than LISP and had potential for AI.

The Japanese Fifth Generation project was a collaborative effort of the Japanese computer industry coordinated by the Japanese Government that intended not only to update the hardware technology of computers but alleviate the problems of programming by creating AI operating systems that would ferret out what the user wanted and then do it. The Project chose to use PROLOG as the computer language for the AI programming instead of the LISP-based programming of the American AI researchers.

The New York Times' story on the demise of the Fifth Generation Project ran with a picture carrying the following caption:

"Ten years ago we faced criticism of being too reckless," said Kazuhiro Fuchi, Fifth Generation's head. "Now we see criticism from inside and outside the country because we have failed to achieve such grand goals."

The story itself was as follows:

Tokyo June 4.--A bold 10-year effort by Japan to seize the lead in computer technology is fizzling to a close having failed to meet many of its ambitious goals or to produce technology that Japan's computer industry wanted. After spending $400 million on its widely heralded Fifth Generation computer project, the Japanese Government said this week that it was willing to give away the software developed by the project to anyone who wanted it, even foreigners.

Machines That Would Think

That attitude is a sharp contrast to the project's inception, when it spread fear in the United States that the Japanese were going to leapfrog the American computer industry. In response, a group of American companies formed the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, a consortium in Austin, Texas, to cooperate on research. And the Defense Department, in part to meet the Japanese challenge, began a huge long-term program to develop intelligent systems, including tanks that could navigate on their own. Now, with a debate in the United States about whether the Government should help American companies compete, the Fifth Generation venture is a reminder that even Japan's highly regarded Ministry of International Trade and Industry can make mistakes in predicting what technologies will be important in the future. The problem for Japan is that the computer industry shifted so rapidly that the technological path the Fifth Generation took-- which seemed a wise choice in 1982-- turned out to be at odds with the computer industry's direction by 1992. In a sense, Japan's ability to stay the course in pursuit of a long-term payoff-- usually considered one of the country's strongest assets-- turned into a liability. A similar challenge for Japan may now be arising in high-definition television. Japan's HDTV system, which has been in development for two decades, is now coming to market just as some engineers believe that major shift to digital television technology will make the Japanese analog approach obsolete. Yet interest in joining government-industry projects continues in Japan. Another computer technology program, called the Real World Computing project, is getting underway. Executives here said that such programs could lead to valuable results even if no useful products emerge from the pipeline. A benefit of the Fifth Generation project, for instance, is that it trained hundreds , perhaps thousands, of engineers in advanced computer science.

The New York Times, 'Fifth Generation' Became Japan's Lost Generation, June 5, 1992.

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