Britain weighs advanced computer project

Britain has not ruled out the possibility of collaborating with Japan in the latter's grandiose plan to produce a new ''fifth generation'' computer by the 1990s. Japanese officials are to visit Britain in September to discuss the project with government representatives.

Japan's ''fifth generation'' program aims to produce computers capable of human thought patterns. The theory is that they would be much easier to use than today's machines.

The project combines the best personnel from Japan's electronics companies, under the guidance of the country's Ministry of International Trade and Industry. And that concerns computer experts in the West. They believe that if the Japanese efforts are not resisted, their country's high-technology industries could be pushed into the second league in the world's marketplace.

But another effect of Japan's drive into advanced computers has been to spur similar collaborative ventures overseas. In the United States, there has been a string of projects, including the Microelectronics & Computer Technology Corporation. This joint venture of 12 major US companies plans to spend some $ 100 million a year on research and development.

The European Community is working on a plan called Esprit that will pool efforts among West European countries in information technology.

But in Europe, it is in Britain that the Japanese project has had the biggest effect. The government recently approved a five-year, (STR)350 million ($530 million) program to develop advanced computers. The taxpayer will contribute (STR)200 million ($300 million), with industry putting up the rest.

The program is masterminded by a small team within the government's Department of Trade and Industry. It is called the Alvey directorate (after John Alvey, the man who contributed most to working out exactly how Britain should respond to the Japanese challenge).

Brian Oakley, the career civil servant who has just taken over as head of the unit, is confident he can persuade Britain's academics and industrialists to pool their resources in joint research projects.

He approaches the visit of the Japanese in September with an open mind. ''I believe that the right thing to do is first to get organized, and only then to talk about collaboration with the Japanese,'' he says.

The original invitation from the Orient to Western nations to participate in the fifth-generation project was met mainly by scorn. Researchers in the US and Britain said they felt collaboration would mean the Japanese took Western research results without giving much in return.

Whatever happens, Japan is certain to regard Britain's efforts in computers with rather more respect than seemed possible a few months ago.

Mr. Oakley's team will announce the first projects to be funded under the Alvey program within a couple of months. He envisages a total of 300 projects over the five years. In each, research will be conducted by consortia made up of two or more companies or groups of academics.

The research projects could constitute, for example, work in making very-large-scale integrated chips in which many thousands of electronic components are packed into a small space on a silicon wafer. Another key area is in advanced computer software, which could, for example, give computers the reasoning power of human experts in areas such as medicine or the diagnosis of faults in factory equipment.

Among the 300 projects will be half a dozen or so large ''demonstrator systems'' meant to incorporate many examples of advanced computer technology. These have still to be decided upon. But they could, as an example, include novel kinds of manufacturing systems in which robots respond to spoken commands from supervisors.

Oakley, whose previous job was secretary to Britain's Science and Engineering Research Council (which funds research projects in universities), says foreign-owned multinationals will not be excluded from the Alvey work.

But they will have to demonstrate that the research will be exploited in, and will mainly benefit, Britain.

US-owned electronics companies that have research bases in Britain have yet to declare whether they will apply for funds under the Alvey program, perhaps by joining forces with British companies. IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola are among the big ones with a strong presence in Britain.

Oakley admits that one concern is that small firms could find themselves excluded from most of the consortia, which could become dominated by Britain's big companies such as General Electric and Plessey. He envisages that his directorate may have to insist on the smaller fry being represented in some of the projects, particularly the large demonstrator systems.

In Oakley's view, the companies in the consortia will participate in projects up to what he calls the ''pre-competitive'' stage. This is the point at which it becomes possible to market products using technologies that result from the research.

The big question is what happens after this. In theory, the companies in the consortia will either sell products in direct competition with each other or decide informally that one partner goes it alone, leaving it able to sell particular product lines free from competition from other British companies.

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