Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


How “STAR WARS” and the Japanese Artificial Intelligence (AI) Threat Led to the Internet, Part II

Posted on | November 28, 2010 | No Comments

This is the second part of my argument about how the Internet changed from a military network to a widescale global network of interconnected networks. It is abstracted from my manuscript on How IT Came to Rule the World and continues the examination of statecraft and its role on the development and impact of computerization and netcentric power.

In Part I of this series I wrote about how the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars” provided a major funding boost to the development of “artificial intelligence” and particularly the networking capability to connect supercomputers that was a crucial step in transforming an obscure military network into the World Wide Web.

However, it was the Japanese when they announced their intention to take the lead in computer-based AI development that first alarmed US policy-makers. In addition to becoming a major economic and financial threat to the US, the Japanese announcement in 1982 that they intended to make major advances in electronic computing alarmed Washington and particularly the “Atari Democrats” who saw “high technology” as major US strategic objective for the US economy and defensive stance in the world.

The Japanese AI Threat

Along with the threat of nuclear war with the USSR, the other paranoia that spurred US government involvement in new data communications technology was the Congressional Japan's AI projectreaction to Japanese plans to develop artificial intelligence (AI) or as it was termed by Edward Feigenbaum and Pamela McCorduck, the “Fifth Generation.” In their book of the same name (1983) but with the subtitle: Artificial Intelligence and Japan’s Computer Challenge to the World,” they weaved a story about advancements in Japan’s computing and information industry policy. They argued knowledge industries were becoming “The New Wealth of Nations”, a term that originated from Adam Smith’s classic book (1776) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Japan had already been conceived of as a major trade threat with its automobile industries and electronics such as its Betamax video cassette recorder (VCR) which dominated the market since it was first marketed in 1975. The book caught the attention of concerned Washington policy-makers who set out to work on a legislative response.

By the early 1980s, the US was beginning to experience massive global trade deficits, especially with Japan. They increased rapidly during Reagan’s first years rising from a negative US$28 billion in 1981, to $36 billion in 1982, and to $62 billion in 1983 (rising to US$160 billion in Reagan’s last year, despite a dramatically stronger yen).[1] These were partially sparked by the so-called “Reaganomics” tax cuts and government spending which created domestic demand beyond the manufacturing capabilities of a “deindustrializing” US. Reagan was also a strong proponent of free trade and promised to veto any trade protection legislation. Combined with a major recession, trade deficits started to become a major economic concern for US policymakers and computers were still a major export.

The US government and interested domestic sectors were concerned that Japan was making its way into “value-added” industries including chip-making, computer design, upscale automobiles and financial industries by exploiting certain advantages. It appeared that Japan was aggressively moving towards the more promising high technology areas and pulling out of areas such as basic steel, shipbuilding, and textiles. With a rapidly growing salary base and a heavy reliance on imported oil and other materials, Japan allowed other countries with lower labor and other resource costs to pick up these industries, often with their investment monies. Japanese companies were also seen to have benefited from protected home markets, considerable support by government, superior quality control and a social structure that allowed them to work together more efficiently. Although dismantled after World War II, their corporate structure still retained the legacy of the zaibatsus, “families” of companies organized around a bank that worked together to break into foreign markets and gain market share. They were helped considerably by their banks’ rapid ascendance into the top 20 largest banks in the world.

The US was also concerned that their export industries were led by MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) that conducted extensive market analyses of foreign markets and coordinated trade activities. Japan had became a major export power and their government intervention was coming under increasing scrutiny by the US. Japanese semiconductor manufacturers for example were making inroads into US markets and were being accused of “dumping” them illegally at prices below costs. [2] But it was their threat of developing artificial intelligence system that really struck fear into US lawmakers.

With the establishment of the Institute for New Generation Technology (ICOT) in April 1982, the Japanese announced their interest in developing a new generation of computers that would be intelligent. The new computers would be able to converse with humans in “natural language” and would be able to “learn, associate, make inferences, make decisions, and otherwise behave in ways which we have always considered the exclusive province of human reason.”[3] The new generation would go way beyond the earlier computer generations that were based respectively on electronic vacuum tubes, transistors, integrated circuits, and very large integrated microprocessors (VLSI). The “Fifth Generation” would go beyond VLSI to produce “supercomputers” based on new concepts in parallel architectures, programming languages, storage techniques, and ways of handling symbolic and other non-alphanumerical information. [4]

The fear of the Japan’s entry into the computer and network technologies mobilized the U.S. government to take action during the 1980s to ensure that the technological edge in computerization and data communications stayed with American interests. In the next section, I will examine how Al Gore and the other Atari Democrats “took the initiative to create the Internet.”


[1] US deficit figures from Daniel Burstein’s (1988) Yen! NY: Simon and Schuster. p. 123.
[2] Japanese “dumping” chips on US markets from Paul Kennedy’s (1987) The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. NY: Random House.
[3] Edward Feigenbaum and Pamela McCorduck, (1983) The Fifth Generation: Artificial Intelligence and Japan’s Computer Challenge to the World. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. p. 12.
[4] Feigenbaum, E. A. and McCorduck, p. 5.

Pennings, Anthony J. “How “STAR WARS” and the Japanese Artificial Intelligence (AI) Threat Led to the Internet, Part II.” Anthony J. Pennings, PhD. Web. 29 Nov. 2010. <“star-wars”-and-the-japanese-artificial-intelligence-ai-threat-led-to-the-internet-japan/> Date accessed.



Anthony J. Pennings, PhD has been on the NYU faculty since 2001 teaching digital media, information systems management, and global communications.


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