Perspectives on Fifth Generation Computing
Brian R. Gaines
Department of Computer Science, York University
Department of Industrial Engineering, University of Toronto
Department of Computer Science, University of Calgary
In 1981 the Japanese announced a program of research on a fifth generation of computing systems (FGCS) that will integrate advances in very large scale integration, data base systems, artificial intelligence, and the human computer interface into a new range of computers that are closer to people in their communication and knowledge processing capabilities. The proposal was a shock at first but Western research quickly reoriented to match the Japanese program. This paper considers fifth generation computing from a wide range of perspectives in order to understand the logic behind the program, its chances of success, and its technical and social impact. The need for a consumer market for mass-produced powerful integrated circuits is shown to underlie the Japanese objectives. The project is placed in a historical perspective of work in computer science and related to the preceding generations of computers. The main projects in the Japanese program are summarized and discussed in relation to similar research elsewhere. The social implications of fifth generation developments are discussed and it is suggested that they grow out of society’s needs. The role of fifth generation computers in providing a new medium for communication is analyzed. Finally, the basis for a Western response to the Japanese program is summarized.
1 Introduction: The Shock of the Fifth Generation
The Japanese initiative in 1981 of scheduling a development program for a fifth generation of computers (Moto-oka 1982, Simons 1983, Fuchi 1984, Hirose & Fuchi 1984) shocked a drowsy West into realizing that computer technology had reached a new maturity. Fifth generation computing systems (FGCS) would integrate advances in very large scale integration (VLSI), database management systems (DBMS), artificial intelligence (AI), and the human computer interface (HCI) into a new range of computers that were closer to people in their communication and knowledge processing capabilities. It may be difficult to recapture the shock of this announcement: it was unforeseen, from an unexpected source, gave a status to AI research that was yet unrecognized in the West, and proposed an integration of technologies that were still seen as distinct.
FGCS involved a surprising confluence of features even to an industry habituated to innovation in technologies and concepts. Computer professionals are part of information technology, familiar with the computer and not naturally sympathetic to either those who fear it or those who see it as savior. However, one attraction of the technology is surely the element of surprise, that each new journal and magazine shows something existing today that seemed to be some years away. No matter how we adapt to the pace of change, its acceleration always causes it to be a step ahead of us. The Japanese announcement is the most recent example of such future shock (Toffler 1970) in the computer industry.
The recognition of the significance of computing technologies such as AI, and the prestige and funding that accompany it, are clearly welcome to many in the computing industry. Around the world resources have been allocated to responsive competing activities. Western research has quickly reoriented to match the Japanese program (HMSO 1982, Steier 1983). Wry remarks may be made to the effect that prophets have no honor in their own country (Feigenbaum and McCorduck 1983). However, it is accepted that a nation with the track record of competition in the auto and semiconductor industries achieved by the Japanese (Davidson 1984) is credible in its high technology planning. This credibility is now accepted as legitimating much related research in the West. We may rejoice in the funding and status accorded...
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