Technology and Innovation in Japan: Policy and Management for the Twenty-First Century

By Martin Hemmert; Christian Oberländer | Go to book overview

9

COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH IN JAPAN AND THE WEST

A case study of Britain’s response to MITI’s Fifth Generation Computer Initiative

Tim Ray

Introduction1

During the 1980s, growing awareness of Japan’s ‘economic miracle’ stimulated Western interest in the alluring prospect of ‘learning from Japan’ and extracting the ‘secret ingredients’ of its success. In particular, paranoia about the ability of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) to orchestrate technological change encouraged an enthusiasm for imitating Japanese government policy. One prominent example of this paranoia was MITI’s capacity to cause shock waves of concern to reverberate around competitor nations through its announcement, in 1981, of a ten-year (1982-92) Fifth Generation Computer Systems (FGCS) initiative. This bold venture aimed to use cooperative research—conducted amongst competitor companies, working together in a specially formed ‘Research Association’ (RA) 2 —to produce ‘thinking’ computers based on artificial intelligence. It appeared that Japanese computer makers, having caught up with the West, were poised to become global leaders in a new era of information technology (IT). Although Western apprehension about the Fifth Generation threat receded long before the ten-year initiative had run its course, the immediate impact of MITI’s original announcement was spectacular.

For many in the West, it seemed that a series of MITI RAs during the 1960s and 1970s had underpinned Japan’s rapid progress in computer technology. In particular, the apparent success of MITI’s 1976-80 VLSI (Very Large Scale Integration) RA encouraged a belief that Japan was somehow exploiting ‘horizontal’ cooperative research conducted amongst rival companies to fuel competitive advantage. Consequently, the FGCS project’s planned use of cooperative research tended to give it added credibility.

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