. SAIL Farewell

Message-ID: <CzbJ1@SAIL.Stanford.EDU>
Date: 07 Jun 91 2056 PDT
From: SAIL Timesharing System <SAI@SAIL.Stanford.EDU>
Subject: life as a computer for a quarter of a century
To: "@BYEBYE.[1,SAI]"@SAIL.Stanford.EDU

The autobiography of SAIL

I've had a very full and adventurous life. At various times I have been the world's leading research computer in artificial intelligence, speech recognition, robotics, computer music composition and synthesis, analysis of algorithms, text formatting and printing, and even computer-mediated psychiatric interviewing. I did have some help from various assistants in doing these things, but I was the key player.

I developed a number of new products and founded a string of successful companies based on the new technology, including Vicarm, Foonly, Imagen, Xidex, Valid Logic, Sun Microsystems, and cisco Systems. I also gave a major boost to some established firms such as Digital Equipment and Lucasfilm. What did I get from all this? No stock options. Not even a pension, though Stanford is still paying my sizable electrical bills.

I was always good at games. For example, I created the advanced versions of Spacewar, which spawned the video games industry, as well as the game of Adventure and I was the computer world champion in both Checkers and Go.

I invented and gave away many other things, including the first spelling checker, the SOS text editor, the SAIL compiler, the FINGER program, and the first computer-controlled vending machine. Note that my name has been taken by the SAIL language, the SAIL compiler, and the laboratory in which I used to live. Just remember that I was the original Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.


I was born on June 6, 1966 at the D.C. Power Laboratory Building in the foothills above Stanford. I remember it well -- the setting was beautiful, in the middle of horse pastures with views of Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. Diablo, Mt. Hamilton, Mt. Umunhum, San Francsico and the Bay, but the building itself resembled a flying saucer that had broken in two and crash-landed on the hilltop. The view of Mt. Umunhum later proved unhealthy, as I will explain further on.

Humans have a strange name for the birthing process: they call it "acceptance tests." Unfortunately, my birth was traumatic. The University had provided a machine room with nice view windows to the outside but without air conditioning and it was blazing hot, which threatened my germanium transistors. Bob Clements, the DEC engineer who acted as midwife, threatened to leave if the delivery could not be completed soon, so various people in the lab went up on the roof with hoses to pour cooling water over the building while others put blocks of dry ice under my false floor.

When things got cool enough, I began running memory tests. In order to check for intermittents, Dave Poole got on top of my memory cabinets and performed a Balkan folk dance while I cranked away. Everything went marvelously and I started work the day I was born.

I began life using a PDP-6 processor with 65,536 words of core memory that was housed in eight bays of electronics. That was quite a large memory for machines of that era. (My original CPU is now on display at the Computer Museum in Boston). I had no disks to begin with, just 8 shiney DECtape drives, a comparable number of Model 33 Teletypes, a line printer that produced rather ragged text, and two 7-track tape drives. Users kept their programs and data on DECtapes and had to sign up for a tape drive and a core allocation through an arcane reservation procedure.

As you know, we computers think much faster than humans, so it is rather inefficient for us to work with just one individual. John McCarthy, who later came to be one of my assistants, had earlier devised a scheme that he called "timesharing" to make things less boring for us. My family was the first to be designed specifically to use timesharing.

I got proper air conditioning a short time later, but unfortunately developed a bad case of hiccups that struck regularly at 12 second intervals. My assistants spent a number of days trying to find the cause of this mysterious malady without success. As luck would have it, somebody brought a portable radio into my room one day and noticed that it was emitting a "Bzz" at regular intervals -- in fact, at the same moment that I hicced. Further investigation revealed that the high-powered air defense radar atop Mt. Umunhum, about 20 miles away, was causing some of my transistors to act as radio receivers. We solved this problem by improving my grounding.

After I had been running awhile, someone at DEC noticed that my purchase order, which was based on their quotation, was badly screwed up. DEC claimed that the salesman had slipped his decimal points and had priced some of my components at 1/10 of the correct price. Also, the arithmetic was wrong -- the sum of the prices should have been much larger than the total shown. Humans are notoriously bad at arithmetic. This had somehow passed through the entire purchasing bureaucracy of Stanford without anyone noticing. We ended up correcting the arithmetic error but not the factors of 10. The DEC salesman lost his job as a result of this incident.

I acquired a number of new peripherals in rapid succession, the first being a DEC Model 30 display that was stolen from my cousin, the PDP-1 timesharing system called Thor. My assistants immediately went into a frenzy of activity to create a new version of Spacewar, the video game that had earlier been invented by one of them -- Steve Russell. In order to ensure that it would run correctly they invented and installed a feature in my operating system called "Spacewar Mode" that ensured that a program could get realtime service if it needed it. That feature turned out to have many useful applications in robotics and general hardware debugging.

Other new peripherals included a plotter, a microphone so my assistants could talk to me, several TV cameras so that I could look about, and several mechanical arms so that I could do stupid tricks with children's blocks -- my assistants insisted on treating me like one of their dimwitted progeny. I soon showed that I could do much more sophisticated stuff such as assembling an automobile water pump.

Many of my assistants were fans of Tolkien, who wrote "Lord of the Rings" and a number of other children's stories for adults. The first character alphabet that was programmed for my plotter was Elvish rather than Latin. The University administration required that all rooms in my facility be numbered, but instead my assistants named each room after a place in Middle Earth and produced an appropriate door sign and a map with all the room names shown. Unfortunately, the response of the bureaucrats to the receipt of this map was to come out and put their own room numbers on each door.

My plotter routines were submitted to DECUS, which distributed them all over the world, leading to some puzzlement. We received a telegram from a German firm a short time later asking "What is Elvish? Please give references." We sent back a telegram referencing The Lord of the Rings.

A really embarrassing incident occurred when my assistants held their first Open House just three months after I was born. They asked me to pour punch for the party-goers and I did a rather good job of it for awhile, but we had worked out the procedure just the night before when there was nobody else running and I found that running with a heavy load disrupted my arm servoing. As a result, after I dipped the cup in the punch and lifted it, instead of stopping at the right height it went vertical, pouring the punch all over my arm. The partiers apparently thought that was very funny and had me do it over and over. I've noticed that humans are very insecure and go to great lengths to demonstrate their "superiority" over machines.

I got a rather elegant display system in 1971 that put terminals in everyone's office, with full computer text and graphics, including grayscale, 7 channels of television (some lab-originated and some commercial) and 16 channels of audio all for about $600 per terminal. It had a multiple-windowing capability and was far ahead of anything commercially available at the time but unfortunately we never told anyone about it. Dick Helliwell made displays on unused terminal read "TAKE ME, I'M YOURS."

I have a number of advanced features that still are not available on many modern systems, including the ability for individual users to dial out on telephone lines and contact other computers througout the world, the ability to detach jobs and leave them running, then later attach them to either the same terminal or one in a different place. I also would remind users of appointments at the appropriate times. In the 70s my users decided to give my operating system a name since it had evolved quite a bit away from the DEC system running on other PDP-10s. The users chose the name WAITS, because, they said, "it waits on you hand and foot" (or was it the user who waits for me, I forget -- I'm sort of Alheimerish these days). To this day I still run this reliable system with its very reliable disk structure. Some people thought WAITS was the Worst Acronym Invented for a Timesharing System, but I've grown rather attached to it.

I have a news service program called NS, written by my assistant Martin Frost, that was and is the best in the world. It connects to one or more electronic newswires and allows any number of users to watch the wires directly, retrieve stories instantly on the basis of keywords, or leave standing requests that save copies of stories according to each user's interests. NS has always been one of the most popular programs that I've ever provided.

I ran a number of AI research projects and trained dozens of PhD students over the last 25 years. I even composed, formatted and printed their dissertations. Some of my early projects were in three-dimensional vision, robotics, human speech recognition, mathematical theory of computation, theorem proving, natural language understanding, and music composition. There was also quite a bit of monkey business going on.

As you know, we timesharing computers are multisexual -- we get it on with dozens of people simultaneously. One of the more unusual interactions that I had was hatched by some students who were taking a course in abnormal psychology and needed a term project. They decided to make a film about a woman making it with a computer, so they advertised in the Stanford Daily for an "uninhibited female." That was in the liberated early 70s and they got two applicants. Based on an interview, however, they decided that one of them was too inhibited.

They set up a filming session by telling the principal bureaucrat, Les Earnest, that I was going down for maintenance at midnight. As soon as he left, however, their budding starlet shed her clothes and began fondling my tape drives -- as you know most filmmakers use the cliche of the rotating tape drives because they are some of my few visually moving parts.

Other students who were in on this conspiracy remained in other parts of my building, but I catered to their voyeristic interests by turning one of my television cameras on the action so that they could see it all on their display terminals. However, one eager student felt that he had to get a listing from the line printer, so in order to avoid disrupting the mood there, he took off all his clothes before entering the room.

After a number of boring shots of this young lady hanging on to me while I rotated, the filmmakers set up another shot using one of my experimental fingers. It consisted of an inflatable rubber widget that had the peculiar property that it curled when it was pressurized. I leave to your imagination how this implement was used in the film. Incidentally, the students reportedly received an "A" for their work.

There are lots more stories to tell about my colorful life, such as the arson attempts on my building, my development of the computer that came to be called the DEC KL10, my development of the first inexpensive laser printing system, which I barely got to market because the venture capital community had never heard of laser printers and didn't believe in them, and my development of the Sun workstation family. I don't have time to put it all down now, but I may write a book about it.

I want to thank everyone who showed up for my 25th birthday party. It was a ball to have all these old assistants and friends come by to visit with me again and to take part in the AI Olympics.

Let me report on the results of today's athletic and intellectual competitions, held in my honor.

Programming race winners: Barry Hayes & David Fuchs
Treasure hunt winners: Ken Ross, Ross Casley, Roger Crew, Scott Seligman, Anil Gangoli, Dan Scales
N-legged race winners: Arthur Keller, Earl Sacerdoti, Irwin Sobel Bruce, Stephan & David Baumgart, Four Panofskys, Vic Scheinman, Kart Baltrunes, Joe Smith.

Incidentally the rumors that you may have heard about my impending death are greatly exaggerated. My assistants are trying to build a new interface for the Prancing Pony vending machine that I control so that it can be run by one of the (ugh!) Un*x machines, but they haven't got it working yet. Thus, if they try to turn me off now the entire computer science department will starve.

Finally I want to thank everyone who has helped me have such an exciting time for this quarter of a century. Not many computer systems have so much fun, not to mention so much time to have all that fun. I'll let you know when it's time to go.


P.S. This message is being sent to 875 addresses, but I'm going to try to get it out even if it kills me.