Another TI story.


(Note by Gene Helms: George Heilmeier championed the opportunity for TI in Artificial Intelligence (AI) during the 1980’s when an exciting wave of new activity rippled through the academic community. He directed a large part of TI’s Computer Science Laboratory under Floyd Hollister toward software research in this area. The computer language LISP had become the "language of choice" for AI researchers, and MIT had sponsored research in computer architecture optimized for LISP processing. TI acquired licenses from MIT plus an early design start-up at Western Digital. Joe Watson led an Austin-based program based on these acquisitions that designed and produced three generations of the Explorer high-end workstation optimized for LISP processing, and later as a UNIX server. At one time, there were only two high end workstations in existence that were considered suitable for AI research and development: TI’s Explorer and a comparable product from Symbolics. Following is Joe Watson’s account of the story.)

It became clear early in the 1980’s that the IBM PC had set the standard for personal computing. But was there an opportunity for a TI high-end workstation for technical applications? Several believed that such an opportunity might be a good fit for TI’s strengths. UNIX-based high-end workstations were proving popular for engineering applications, including integrated circuit design---an area of principal importance to TI.

An MIT project led by Stephen Ward had developed the NuBus, which appeared to be ideal for a UNIX-based workstation. Two of Ward’s former students had begun a startup business within Western Digital to develop and market the NuMachine, based on the NuBus. TI acquired this startup, which had begun delivering NuMachines to MIT. After 30 or so had been delivered, TI opted to discontinue the NuMachine rather than re-engineer the machine for volume production.

Concurrently with these developments, a rebirth in artificial intelligence, or "AI", appeared to be emerging. Although AI had been around for several decades, little significant commercialization had occurred. MIT, Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon were the AI citadels, where researchers were using primarily the LISP language as a basic research tool. TI concluded that an opportunity existed for a rather specialized AI workstation that would directly execute the Lisp language. There were two suppliers of these "LISP machines" in the market. It was reasoned that if there were to be significant AI commercial applications, as it seemed, there would be significant Lisp machine markets for developing and delivering these applications. To address this perceived opportunity, the TI Explorer, a LISP machine, was developed. It was based on the NuBus and used the MIT LISP software. Several Explorers were delivered to MIT as part of the license agreement. A later version of this product was called Explorer II. Explorer III, the final product in this series, retained the NuBus but was re-engineered for use as a UNIX server.

A companion product for TI’s "AI thrust" was a PC software package called the "Personal Consultant", which provided development and run-time tools for "expert systems". Such "knowledge-based" and "rule-based systems", were the most popular areas for AI application. The idea was that, with PC-based software, a much broader base could be established for AI applications, with the Explorer being available for the more computationally intense requirements.

Probably one of the best known commercial expert system applications from this era was the Campbell soup story. One of their long-time experts, who had intimate and detailed knowledge about the soup processing factory flow, was about to retire. Soup was cooked in the can after sealing, and it was essential that a carefully controlled time and temperature profile be followed in the cooking process, or the soup would be spoiled. Whenever one of their many soup canneries developed a flow problem, the result was a lot of bad soup, so the expert would be consulted to quickly correct the problem. In order to preserve the expert’s knowledge base, a group of TI "knowledge engineers" was called in to capture his knowledge, codify it and make it available through an expert system. The company reported that this project was very successful. There were other projects that were notable, some of which met operational needs for several years. One airline company did scheduling on a rule-based system, running on TI Explorers.

As it turned out, the pure AI market proved to be very limited. AI techniques were absorbed into the more general set of tools used in software development supported by UNIX and, later, Windows environments that became de facto standards. While LISP machines, and specialized AI PC software, were a relatively short-lived market phenomenon, the NuBus survived for awhile, appearing in the Apple Mac II, but was soon overtaken by newer technology.

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