The fifth generation: Japan's computer challenge to the world. Edward Feigenbaum; Pamela McCorduck.
As early as the Chou dynasty, about the fourth century B.C., a certain Sun Tzu wrote a brief treatise called "The Art of War," which made much of knowledge for the successful conduct of war. Sun Tzu's wisdom would endure. Centuries later, his treatise was consulted by Chairman Mao and memorized in its entirety by officers of the Japanese Imperial Navy in World War II; a quote from it opens a U.S. Army field manual of the 1980s that marks the first significant change in army field tactics since the U.S. Civil War. Knowledge, says Sun Tzu, is power and permits the wise soveriegn and the benevolent general to attack without risk, conquer without bloodshed, and accomplish deeds surpassing all others.
The New York Stock Exchange recently published its own treatise which says, less poetically, the same thing: increased productivity derives from more capital, from better capital, but most important of all, from "working smarter" with the capital at hand. American business leaders are as concerned with the art of war as Sun Tzu and his legion of international disciples have been, but in this century the battlefield has changed. Instead of the mountains and valleys of ancient China, the vital battlefield has become the international marketplace.
No nation understands all this better than the Japanese. And by the beginning of the next decade, the Japanese plan to be well on their way to utilizing the amassed konowledge of human civilization as their leverage to achieve a preeminent role in world trade. Other develop nations, in particular Great Britain and France, recognize the wisdom of the Japanese plan and are undertaking strategies of their own. Each such national program, including Japan's revolves around the development of a new technology that embodies knowledge as its central feature--knowledge that will transform its holder's small advantage into a big, powerful, and eventually decisibe advantage in any competition.
The United States, which poineered the technology each of these national plans is based upon, and which has been preeminent in information technology for decades, has no such plan. A few industrialists and a handful of government officials are alert to these programs abroad and understand the consequences if the United States makes no rational plan of its own, but on the whole, Americans are remarkably indifferent to, even ignorant of, the challeges to our national predominance in everything from computing to finance, from industrial output to quality of life, that these other plans represent. We are, as usual, relying on matters to take care of themselves somehow or other. Because information technology moves so very much more quickly than other kinds of technology--halving in price and doubling in power every two years on the average--matters aren't likely just to take care of themselves in ways that Americans will be altogether happy with.
To fashion machines that behave intelligently--that act in ways such that, were a human to act so, we would say, "Ah, that's intelligent behavior" -- has been the explicit goal of a scientific field called artificial intelligence, which started more than twenty-five years ago with the introduction of the digital computer. Despite evergreen controversy and skepticism, the field has begun to create machines that, in some limited sense, reason. Often the reasoning power of these machines matches or exceeds the reasoning power of the humans who intructed them and, in some cases, the reasoning power of any human performing such tasks.
There's a fair parallel between intelligent machines and automabiles. In the world of artificial intelligence, it is, so to speak, 1890; the first automobileshave already appeared. They're hand-crafted horseless carriages, to be sure, but they're distincly autos, different from wagons, carriages, and sleighs in good ways and had.
The Japanese have studied this primitive horseless-carriage machine intelligence. They conclude that with certain major developments it can be a mass-market item. With the same kind of foresight Ransom Olds or Henry Ford once had as he examined the custom-built machines of Benz and Daimler, the Japanese have decided to improve upon greatly and mass-produce the intelligent machine. That means all the vigorous hand cranking, throttling, and wrenching a pioneer now accepts as the inevitable price of using the machine--the difficult programming languages, the struggles to make different programs compatible, the problems of putting human knowledge into machine form--are to disappear, eliminated in the new Japanese Fifth Generation of computers. This in itself would be remarkable enough, but the Japanese also intend to supply gas stations and roadways for the new machines, necessities for the users and sources of income for the supplier. Thus we recapitulate the story of personal transportation from the first hand-built Benz Patent Motor Wagon to the Honda Civic, for these new machines will also be "autos": self-propelled vehicles of the intellect.
The change from the speed of walking--about four miles an hour--to have speed of automobiles--about forty miles an hour--was an order-of-magnitude change that, while it didn't represent so very much in numbers, has transformed our lives utterly. (The next great order-of-magnitude change, from automobiles to jet planes that travel at 400 miles an hour, has made equivalent transformations in oure lives.) This is central to what the Japanese plan for their new generation of computers: quantitative changes in computing speed, power, and reasoning that must make qualitative changes in our lives we can barely foresee. As for the computers that most of us are familiar with right now, they aren't horseless carriages. They're no more than bicycles.
The Japanese are planning the miracle product. It will come not from their mines, their wells, their fields, or even their seas. It comes instead from their brains. The miracle product is knowledge, and the Japanese are planning to package and sell it the way other nations package and sell energy, food, or manufactured goods. They're going to give the world the next generation--Fifth Generation--of computers, and those machines are going to be intelligent.
In October 1981, when Japan first let the world at large know about its plans for the Fifth Generattion of computers, the Japanese government announced that over the next decade it planned to spend seed money of about $450 million (participating industries are expected to match, and perhaps double, that amount) and would eventually involve several hundred top scientists in this project. Their goal is to develop computers for the 1990s and beyond--intelligent computers that will be able to converse with to converse with humans in natural language and understand speech and pictures. These will be computersthat can learn, associate, make inferences, make decisions, and otherwise behave in ways we have always considered the exclusive province of human reason.
Why have they chosen computing in particular? "Promoting a national project such as this in the computer industry, which has a strong effect on various leading technologies, will probably greatly influence the way in which research and development systems will be made in other industrial fields." Moreover, "our efforts will not only foster creative techology for our own computer industry, but will also provide our country with bargaining power. We also fulfill our duty as an economic power by investing in the development of such leading fields." In other words, the Japanese understand that if they succeed in this visionary computing project, they will acquire leverage over all kinds of industries, at home and abroad. The Fifth Generation is an exquisite piece of economic strategy.
About six months later, on April 14, 1982, an institute to guide the ten-year research and development program, called the Institute for New Generation Computer Technology (ICOT), was formally launched, its initial funding and new laboratories in Tokyo provided by the Japanese government. The first working papers to explore how such machines might be designed have been published, the first scientists to work fulltime on the project have been recruited. Elaborate plans have been drawn up which will allow the Japanese to move ahead step by step, evaluating their progress as they go, building on each success, and adjusting and revising for failure.
The Fifth Generation will be more than a technological breakthrough. The Japanese expect these machines to change their lives--and everyone else's. Intelligent machines are not only to make Japan's soviety a better, richer one by the 1990s, but they're explicitly planned to be influential in other areas, such as managing energy or helping deal with the problems of an aging society. Perhaps less grandiosely but equally important, the new machines will "serve as an active prime mover in all industrial fields by helping to increase the efficiency in those areas where increasing productivity has proven difficult," such as the primary industries (for example, agriculture and fishing) and the tertiary industries (for example, services, design, and general management).
But these are only the areas we can already see. There's a universe of possibilities essentially unknown to us that this research will open up.
"Development in unexplored fields can contribute actively to the progress of human society," the Japanese say. "By promoting the study of artifical intelligence and realizing intelligent robots, a better punderstanding of the mechanisms of life will become possible. The approaching realization of automatic interpretation and translation will serve to help people of different tongues understand each other, to reduce problems due to misunderstanding and ignorance, and to lead to further growth based on mutual understanding of cultures. With the construction of aknowledge base mde possible, the knowledge which mankind has accumulated can be stored and effectively utilized, so that the development of culture as a whole can be rapidly promoted. Mankind will more easily be able to acquire insights and perceptions with the aid computers."
The Japanese have been sending scientific emissaries to the West for years to study the pioneering aftificial intelligence research in the United States, Great Britain, and Europe. The Japanese have grasped the great scientific themes that run through artificial intelligence, and they feel ready to gather up a loosely knit group of ad hoc projects and to consolidate and develop them into what can only be called a momentous national projcet. Its success--even partial--will vault them into a position of distant leadership in conducting the world's information business.
Their Fifth Generation plans say unequivocally that the Japanese are the first nation to act consciously upon the realization that the new wealth of nations can be viewed as something besides financial capital, secured from manufactures goods or land rental, as it was in Adam Smith's time. In this they have acted on a truth that has been emerging and reiterated for nearly two decades. The world is entering a new period. The wealth of nations, which depended upon land, labor, and capital during its agricultural and industrial phases--depended upon natural resources. the accumulation of money, and even upon weaponry--will come in the future to depend upon information, knowledge, and intelligence.
This isn't to say that the traditional forms of wealth will be unimportant. Humans must eat, and they use up energy, and they like manufactured goods. But in the control of all these processes will reside a new form of power which will consist of facts, skills, codified experience, large amounts of easily obtained data, all accessible in fast, powerful ways to anybody who wants it -- shcolar, manager, policy-maker, professional, or ordinary citizen. And it will be for sale.
In a piece of social forecasting that looks more prescient all the time, Daniel Bell, a Harvard sociologist, presented the outlines of what he called the postindustrial society. The Japanese, whom he hardly mentions in his 1976 book, have obliged him by beginning to shape a society with just the features Bell discerned would characterize postindustrialism.
What Bell calls the "axial principle" of this postindustrial society is the centrality and codification of theoretical knowledge. Along that axis are a new intellectual technology, the spread of a knowledge class, the switch from goods to services, a change in the character of work, and so on. In the Japanese case, the new intellectual technology is aritificial intelligence, in this instance, machines that amplify human thought. This technology will take its place beside writing, printing, mathematics, and other technologies that have changed the way we think.
Bell also predicts that the primary institutions of the postindustrial society will be the university, academic instites, and researc corporations. Indeed, the three sectors combining to bring about the Fifth Generation are Japanese universisties, independent institutes, and the research laboratories of eight of its major firms. The primary resource of the postindustrial society is human capital, says Bell. "Our one precious asset is our human resources," say the Japanese. The economic ground of the postindustrial society is science-based, says Bell. "The products of our country will be rendered unique and specialized in their respective fields due to their performance, design, and knowledge-intensive qualities," say the Japanese. "The achievements will further serve as a foundation for promoting the true knowledge intensiveness of our industries."
Of course, the postindustrial society has its problems: What should science and education policy be? How shall the public and private sectors be balanced? How shall society cope with bureaucracies and an adversary culture?
But these problems must seem an after-noon's work compared with the problems that have driven Japan to the Fifth Generation project. Japan is a nation of 110 million people (about half the population of the United States) who must live on an area just smaller than that of the state of Montana. It has no natural resources and very little arable land. For most nations, this would be the occasion to pound on the doors of the World Bank. In the past, it has driven Japan unsuccessfully to war. Now, however, faced with these perennial problems, Japan has seized the initiative and shrewdly reckoned that its new Fifth Generation of Knowledge Information Processing System (KIPS) could give Japan the lead in this race to become a postindustrial society
The first and most obvious reason for this is the increase in productivity such machines will bring about. They are designed specifically to increase the productivity of knowledge worker--and here we mean professionals as surely as billing c lerks--by orders of magnitude over what they can accomplish now. Knowledge workers, as we shall see, constitute the majority in the work force of developed nations, and their ranks will increase. Thus a significant improvement in their productivity will have profound economic effects.
The manufactured goods that Japan will sell will be so much better than the competition's, thanks to the degree of knowledge that will be brought to bear on their design and manufacture, that the Japanese expect to dominate markets in conventional products, too. But perhaps equally important to all the economic advantages the Fifth Generation promises is that intangible thing called quality of life. A society where knowledge is quickly and easily available to anybody who wants it will, we think, be an alluring place.
While many observers, expecially American, have greeted the announcement of the Fifth Generation with some skepticism, the odds in this visionary national gamble are better than they might at first seem.
To begin with, the Japenese really do understand--and have formulated a national policy that anticipates--what the future will look like. In Japan as Number One, Ezra Vogel puts it blunty: "If any single factor explains Japanese success, it is the group-directed quest for knowledge...When Daniel Bell, Peter Drucker, and others hailed the coming of the postindustrial society in which knowledge replaced capital as society's most important resource, this new conception became a great rage in Japan's leading circles. But these leading circles were merely articulating the latest formulation of what had already become conventional Japanese wisdom, the supreme importance of the pursuit of knowledge.
A review of the shifts in the American labor force may illuminate this. As late as 1900, it took nearly 40 percent of the labor force to feed Americans. Now only 3 percent are needed. In less than fifty years, labor economists expect the same sort of shift to take place in manufacturing so that industrial operatives will constitute 4 to 5 percent of the work force too, down from the 25 percent they represent now. Nobody (save, perhaps, the French) expects the fantasy of the 1950s to take place: we will is optional and the disposal of leisure time is our biggest headache. Instead, the rest of us will be service and iformation workers.
Knowledge is a Japanese passsion. In the circulation figures of their newpapers (comparable to those of the United States, with a population half the size), in the scope of their educational TV programs, in the performance of their schoolchildren in subjects such as mathematics and natural science, in the numbersd of Japanese who complete high school and postsecondary schools, in community groups that band together to study possible solutions to problems that confront them--in all these the Japanese reverence for information is obvious. The numbers in the Japanese labor force again tell the stroy: the Japanese are moving rapidly and eagerly into a well-educated, information-rich postindustrial society.
As for natural resources, those countries that depend on their resources alone have been dramatically disillusioned. In a phrase that can only evoke a sign from oil-poor nations, oil wealth has been characterized as "a very mixed blessing" by none other than the former executive director of the International Monetary Fund. Yet he makes his point. The oil-exporting countries are extremely diverse, ranging from Algeria to Norway, from Kuwait to Mexico, but they have had surprisingly similar economic problems: the wquandering of revenues, hyperinflation, stalled industrial development, an actual drop in agricultural production, and deeply painful social clashes among their various sectors--laborers, consumers, religious leaders who feel cheated, and government officials who feel accursed. Ali A. Attiga, an OPEC stateman, says that history may show that the oil-exporting countries "have gained the least, or lost the most, from the discovery and development of their resources." Although the oil-importing nations will probably not get out their handkerchiefs, a comparison between the standard of living in Japan and that of nearly any OPEC country says a great deal.
For the Japanese, without land or natural resources, do have that vital vomponent of the new wealth of nations. They have that national passion for knowledge and the vision and will to parlay the passion into developing a technology that will reshape the world.
Having specified the number of disciplines, areas, and skills where the Fifth Generation will have a great impact, the Japanese announcement adds in strained sysntax but justified optimism: "It is felt certain that Fifth Generation computers will trigger the realization of developments and phenomena heretofore undreamed of."
Is all seems to smack of science fiction, but it is real and deeply important to the Japanese. In this article we shall argue that it is deeply important to all of us.
Simply put, Japan's survival as a nation is at stake. The Japanese are acutely aware that to remain competitive in world markets, they must increase productivity in those areas that so far have been neglected. The primary industries, such as fishing and agriculture, must become knowledge-intensive in order to become more productive. The tertiary industries, meaning services, management, and design, for example, must also become knowledge-intensive for the same purpose. As for secondary, or manufacturing, industries, their products will be superior because of their much quality, based on all the knowledge tha will be poured into their disign and manufacture.
The Japanese are a proud people, with a history of cultivated civilization stretching back before the unification of their nation under the Yamato court in the second century A.D. Thus, more important than it may at first seem, the Japanese intend to show by this project that they are capable of originally and not merely the copycat development of technologies originating elsewhere. Japan's national self-esteem is deeply bound up in the Fifth Generation projects, and it is that pride that fires the national will to accomplish it.
It is early August 1982, a little more than ten months after the Fifth Generation conference. Feigenbaum and McCorduck are on the twenty-first floor of a modern but otherwise undistinguished high-rise in Tokyo, where, because of earthquakes, high-rises are unusual. On a door with a frosted glass window, typical of any insurance company or professional's office, is lettered in both English and Japanese, "Indtitute for New Generation Computer Technology" (ICOT). The office behind the frosted glass door has a splendid view of Tokyo, its bay, and even, in good weather, Mount Fuji.
Forty researchers sit in one big, sunny, pleasant room at long tables with finger-tip-high partitions between those who sit face to face, but no partitions between those who sit side by side. Make no mistake, these are tables--not work stations, desks, terminal tables, or any such thing. Indeed, the only computers in evidence are over in one corner: a couple of Apple IIs, two or three minicomputers, and four terminals to a remote DEC-20 system. The researchers assure visitors that more new equipment will arrive in a month: another mini, another terminal to another DEC-20. Still, it doesn't look like a place propitious for revolution. In fact, most American computer science graduate students would turn up their noses at the austerity.
Nevertheless, revolution is the business of ICOT. It's revolution on two levels. The first is the obvious--the people at ICOT are going to bring about the Fifth Generation of computers, the second computer revolution. But very closely tied to that, perhaps a necessary precondition for it, is a social revolution, at least so far as the Japanese are concerned.
In the first place, except for ICOT's director, Kazuhiro Fuchi, everybody there--by Fuchi's demand--is under thirty-five, and in some cases well under that. Though Fuchi himself is in his mid-forties, he has long ago recognized that revolutions aren't made by the elderly, and he's insisted on this point. "Young8" he says simply, "young and excellent."
The young and excellent have come from a variety of places, including the eight firms that make up the consortium backing ICOT--Fujitsu, Hitachi, Nippon Electric Corporation, Mitsubishi, Matsushita, Oki, Sharp, and Toshiba--and the two national laboratories that are also participating, the government-owned Nippon Telephone and Telegraph's Musashino Laboratories and MITI's own Electro-technical Laboratory. The researchers have come to spend three years here for a variety of reasons. Most of them were handd-picked by Fuchi, young men who impressed him by their work on the numerous committees that deliberated before ICOT came into being; some are his former proteges. Most have come eagerly, hungry for the chance to work directly on projects of momemtous significance and with responsibilities that wouldn't ordinarily be allowed them until they'd accumulated years of seniority at their various firms and laboratories.
However, a minority of researchers at ICOT hold other views. They come from firms the Fifth Generation project is going to be an international embarrassment for the Japanese, firms that contributed their workers only under duress from MITI. Such people are uncomfortable in the unstructured atmosphere of ICOT--who is to tell them what to do? They have adopted their firm's point of view--isn't this all much too ambitious? Do you see IBM embarked on anything so blue-sky? And worse, they find themselves doing what they consider dirty work,and so it is, the grubby business of designing and coding and trying and failing and experimenting and arguing that must inevitabby take place at the start of major project. there's been enough trouble from this minority in the first two months to provoke a delegation from the majority to entreat Fuchi to solve the problem. The dissension isn't good for morale, they warn; work may suffer. Fuchi reassures them. He hopes to convert the dissidents; he reverses the final dicision to send them packing.
Even those wsho adore--the word is not too strong--their unusual director are often dismayed by him. A month after the center formally opened, the hardware committee met with Fuchi and showed him the fast-track two-year plan they'd devised for producing the prototype hardware scheduled for the first threee-year phase. Instead of being pleased, Fuchi flew into a rage. That alone is unusual enough among Japanese managers, but what Fuchi wants is even more upsetting: cut that schedule down to a year and a half, he demands. The hardware committee is in shock. They already think themselves reckless in their two-year schedule. Fuchi will have none of it. "We have to manage to do this!" he says angrily. After a little while he calms down. "Go and think it over," he says more reasonably. "If you absolutely have them. But see if it can't be done in a year and a half. Loosen up on thequality assurance and give me a real machine in a year and a half."
Sitting with Feigenbasum acorss a conference table from Kazuhiro Fuchi one early August morning, McCorduck is fascinated by him and eventually reminded of Murasaki Shikibu's description of that eleventh-century hero, the shining Genji: "He brought plesure to the eye and serenity to the heart, and made people wonder what bounty of grace might be his from former lives." Energy and intensity flow from Fuchi, touching everyone around him. He certainly doesn't talk very much, and he often leaves it oto his supervisor of the international study deprtment, a vivacious young woman, to translate what he has just said, although his English seems fluent enough when he wishes. He often speaks with his hands, eloquent gestures so that the foreign visitors can almost guess what he's said before Ms. Yumiko Okada gets a chance to translate in her smartly colloquial English. He misses nothing, watching his young researchers make their presentations, assessing the reactions of the foreign visitors shrewdly. He sometimes looks as if he's enjoying a silent, private joke.
Fuchi strikes Feigenbaum as young in spirit, adventuresome, ready to take risks. Unlike, the classical Japanese technological manager who, as he climbs up the ladder of authority, gradually loses touch with the technology he manages, Fuchi commands the admiration of his staff for his deep involvement in technical projects and his awesome knowledge.
In Feigenbaum's past conversations with him, Fuchi had seemed a man who despised the Japanese copycat stereotype, one that many Japanese themselves believe. On the contrary, Fuchi seems proud of native Japanese intelligence--almost arrogant about it, Feigenbaum senses. That might easily be overlooked as the cocoon of Japanese courtesy surrounds a visitor, but it's there, embodied in men like Fuchi who make it clear they believe it is no accident that Japan is on top, that no goal is too ambitious for such a gifted people. Fuchi almost seems to have taken on a personale campaign to wipe out once and for all the energetic but uncreative stereotype that shadows the Japanese.
The director's office at ICOT is well furnished in the International style, with one glass wall overlooking Tokyo Bay. McCorduck thinks it ironic that the office of the man who will command a computer revolution looks down on the very spot where Commodore Perry and his notorious black boats once threatened to demolish Tokyo (then Edo) if America didn't get exactly what it wanted in the way of trade agreements with unwilling Japan. But if Fuchi ever dwells on that incident, it isn't because he's looking out his office window; in reality this office is a ceremonial place with pristine furniture and only a few books in the otherwise empty cases. Fuchi has installed himself instead in a low-partitioned section of the main floor, where he can oversee and be immediately accessible to his forty researchers.
In short, Fuchi is a type, rare enough in the West but almost unheard of in the East, one of those who, by sheer force of will, can make something out of nothing. He's the stuff of which legends are made.
And of course legends are already growing up around him. Late in the evening (not necessarily over the computer terminals) his researchers trade stories about him. In the nature of legends, no one is quite sure which parts are true and which aren't. The stories that get repeated most are those that Fuchi's own personality makes plausible. For example, they recount the tale--though no one can verify it--that as a young man their own age, Fuchi once got so perturbed with the way things were being run at the laboratory where he worked that in fury and desperation he stalked out and stayed away for a month, coming back only after his supervisor came to his house and pleaded with him to return.
Everybody knows that Fuchi has irrevocably resigned from his former post at the Electrotechnical Laboratory, a startling step for any Japanese employee, all the more one with such seniority. A high roller, he's placing all his bets on the Fifth Generation project. The legends add that Fuchi would have been eligible for a comfortable government pension if he'd only waited two or three months to resign his position at ETL, but he spurned anything so trivial as personal financial security to delay his project even by months. This is sensational to the young researchers who have grown up in the lifetime employment system of Japan. Here is a daring leader capable of the kind of innovative thinking the Fifth Generation demands. If it can be done, Fuchi will do it. Here is a leader who can take them where they want to go. He has smashed social stereotypes; he has tossed out social tradition. Why not scientific stereotypes and traditions, too?
The title above is taken from a wise aphorism attributed to the physicist Niels Bohr.
We stand today, before a singularity, an event so unprecedented that predictions as we know them, and the singularity called reasoning machines will change things from how we know them in vastly unpredictable ways. "The appearance on earth of a nonhuman entity with intelligence approaching or exceeding mankind's would rank with the most significant events in human history," Fortune magazine declared in a recent series of articles on thinking machines. "While human beings can't possibly imagine the full consequences, the effects on technology, science, economics, warfare--indeed, on the whole intellectual and sociological development of mankind--would undoubtedly be momentous."
We are not different from our fellow human beings. We can't possibly imagine the full consequences of the widespread use of KIPS either. If hundreds of thousands learned to read so that Tom Paine's pamphlets might persuade them that they had justification for revolting against monarchies as a form of government, who can say how universal access to machine intelligence--faster, deeper, better than human intelligence--will change science, economics, and warfare, and the whole intellectual and sociological development of mankind?
In this article we have described a technology that promises to change our lives the way few have: reasoning machines are, as we have said, not just the second computer revolution, but the important one. If the details of the technology itself are complicated, the issues that surround it can be understood by nearly everyone. A superiority in knowledge technology provides whoever holds it with the power to resolve shades of gray into black and white--provides, in brief, an unequivocal advantage--whether we are speaking of personal power, national economics, or warfare.
The Japanese understand this perfectly. They have already begun to translate the understanding into the new technology that will give them unequivocal advantage over the rest of the world, perhaps by the middle of the next decade. Other nations recognize the soundness of the Japanese strategy--and, of course, its inevitability. In response to the farsighted Japanese, ambitious national plans are being drawn up in many places. But the United States, which ought to lead in such plans, trails along in disarrayed and diffuse indecision.
We have resisted calling this a crisis for the United States. We could pursue a dark thought, imagining artificial intelligence technology to slip away out of our control, which would ultimately have severe effects on our general industry, our standard of living, and our national defense.
We prefer instead to regard this Japanese challenge as an opportunity for the United States to revitalize itself, to join the Japanese and other nations in the world in the exhilarating adventure of moving the Empire of Reason, as historian Henry Steele Commager could once, with justification, call the United States, decisively into the Age of Reasoning Machines.
In the end, we have no choice. We can decide when we shall participate, not if. The question of when begets how.
To the first question of when, we urge that it be at once. To the second question of how, we urge only that whatever plan is chosen, it embody what the American revolutionary generation possessed in abundance and ought to be ours once more: optimism, energy, authority, pragmatism, candor, audacity, and a taste for succeeding.
At the beginning of this article, we asserted that knowledge is power. We meant it not only in the vulgar sense, that one sleek, smart missile can clobber tons of dumb battleship, though that is demonstrably true; or even that a scientific instrument with built-in intelligence can outperform its dumb cousin that costs much more money, though that too is true. Most applications we've described, or we anticipate, have been material ones. For one thing, they're easiest to describe. For another, those are what Westerners are most comfortable with.
But there's a further dimension to a society dominated by knowledge that we should like to address, a nonmaterial dimension. The Japanese, having a very long history of putting material things in their place, which is an important place but clearly subordinate to and often in the service of nonmaterial concerns, are better at sensing the spiritual change the knowledge society might bring. A book by Yoneji Masuda, The Information Society as Post-Industrial Society, has some provocative things to say about the future.
Masuda makes a dense, detailed, and finally plausible case that our knowledge-rich future will coax us away from a preoccupation with material concerns and toward a preoccupation with the nonmaterial. He sees this taking the form of the freedom for each of us to set individual goals of self-realization and then perhaps a worldwide religious renaissance, characterized not by a belief in a supernatural god, but rather by awe and humility in the presence of the collective human spirit and its wisdom, humanity living in a symbiotic tranquillity with the planet we have found ourselves upon, regulated by a new set of global ethics.
It is decidedly not an otherworldly religious spirit, which makes it different from religious passions of the past. On the contrary, it is sharply focused on this world, with humans having a serious, direct, and continuous say in all matters that affect their lives. But those exercises will be characterized less by the "me first" attitude that has often prevailed in human affairs, and more by a spirit of mutual assistance toward shared goals.
It sounds utopian. And "utopian" often means hopelessly idealistic, beyond human reach. Surely, we can argue, Masuda's prophecies are unduly shaped by living as he does in a prosperous, homogeneous society where the seeds of such a way of life are already planted and sprouting. But "utopian" also means something we have said many times and in many ways that we deeply desire as a human good. Indeed, Masuda reminds us that all this corresponds to Adam Smith's vision in The Wealth of Nations of a universal opulent society, a condition of plenty that frees the people from dependence and subordination to exercise true independence of spirit in autonomous actions. What Masuda is saying is that soon the technology will be in place to permit such a society to exist all over the globe.
The reasoning animal has, perhaps inevitably, fashioned the reasoning machine. With all the risks apparent in such an audacious, some say reckless, embarkation onto sacred ground, we have gone ahead anyway, holding tenaciously to what the wise in every culture at every time have taught: the shadows, however dark and menacing, must not deter us from reaching the light.