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 Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL)

 The semi-circular building in the right center near Felt Lake

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a branch of engineering devoted to creating intelligent machines, so I and others prefer to call it machine intelligence. It is an ever-changing field in that as soon as a certain problem is solved it becomes ordinary engineering and is no longer part of AI. Here are photos of many of the early participants.

SAIL History. This web site was created early in the new millennium to review accomplishments of the ancient Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL), whose government funding was initiated in 1965 by Professors John McCarthy and Edward Feigenbaum and Lester Earnest was then recruited to design, set up, name and manage that graduate study facility. It typically ran with a population of a bit over 100 and nearly all participants seemed to have an enjoyable and productive time there, though Earnest had to deal with McCarthy’s financial corruption by boxing him in. It ran there for13 years but was shut down in 1980 after a move to the newly renovated Margaret Jacks Hall in the Outer Quad of the main campus.

     Along the way, Earnest initiated development of what became the first hand-eye-ear robot with the help of recent Professor Raj Reddy and his students. It took verbal instructions on how to manipulate children’s blocks on a table and used computer vision and a robot arm to do it – see Hear! Here!, a 1969 15-minute color video. Earnest also initiated the first attempt at a self-driving vehicle, the Stanford Cart, but McCarthy decided he wanted to play with it and took it over, then terminated the project. However, a new PhD student named Hans Moravec revived the vehicle and got it to navigate slowly through a cluttered room, similar to research being done at nearby SRI International. Raj Reddy and Hans Moravec then each migrated to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and set up a Robotics Lab there, which again took up the self-driving vehicle problem.

     SAIL became a hotbed of innovation that directly or indirectly produced dozens of commercial spinoffs, some very successful such as Microsoft, Sun Microsystems (now part of Oracle), Cisco Systems (actually more of a ripoff), D.E. Shaw and Associates, and SAIL alumni also made substantial contributions to Xerox PARC, Apple Computers and other startups. Seventeen winners of ACM Turing Awards (the computer science equivalent of a Nobel Prize) had previous SAIL affiliations.

The founders of both Microsoft (Bill Gates & Paul Allen) and Apple Computers (Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak) were introduced to interactive computing by people from SAIL and many other successful companies were founded directly or indirectly by people from SAIL including Amazon, Sun Microsystems (now part of Oracle), Cisco Systems, D.E. Shaw & Associates, Google, and Rambus.

     SAILors spun off many successful academic research groups. For example, in addition to the CMU Robotics Lab, Rodney Brooks earned his PhD at SAIL in 1981 then went to MIT and in 1997 formed the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), an indication that he liked the name SAIL. He also founded IRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner, and another robotics company.

     In the late 1970s a SAIL group led by Lynn Quam undertook a planetary research project in collaboration with astronomer Carl Sagan, who came by every few weeks to view photos of Mars taken by satellite and looking for visible changes. He later put together the very popular PBS television series called Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

     SAIL staff member Whit Diffie initiated the development of Public Key Cryptography in collaboration with Prof. Martin Hellman, for which they were given ACM Turing Awards. A practical version of that scheme was developed by RSA Corp., which was initiated by Ron Rivest, another PhD SAILor.

     Given that the evolving CSD got distributed all over the campus, in the late 1970s, a decision was made to reconstruct an existing building on the Main Quad to accommodate the entire department. I then helped design what became Margaret Jacks Hall, next to the main campus entrance. However, in 1979 as we moved in, the new CSD Chair chose to exclude one very important part of SAIL, namely the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), he had tried to get rid of them earlier, apparently because they were mainly members of the Music Department, but I had succeeded in blocking him. However, our move to Jacks Hall left them abandoned without a computer in our former building, which was disintegrating. Fortunately, they were able to slowly recover and are a thriving group today, now occupying the former residence of Stanford’s first President.

     After moving into the new building, McCarthy shut down SAIL and fired me, apparently to get out of being managed. I got several interesting job offers but decided to complete my education by becoming founding President of a startup called Imagen Corporation in collaboration with a new PhD named Luis Trabb-Pardo, who had done much of the work on making a laser printer work for desktop publishing. I had acquired the printing hardware from a Stanford grad who was the son of Canon Corporation’s Board Chairman, so I then purchased a license from Stanford to use the technology developed at SAIL. I started off by seeking venture capital funding, mostly at the companies on Sand Hill Road near Stanford but did not succeed. It took me awhile to figure out that they all had lunch with each other, so if you failed with a few you might as well forget about it. I even shaved off my hippie beard and changed from a Hawaiian shirt to a coat-and-tie but it was too late. Meanwhile they were giving millions of dollars to “Me Too” disk-makers, all of which went belly-up.

      In 1980, McCarthy shut down SAIL and fired Earnest, who then completed his education by doing a successful Silicon Valley bootstrap startup called Imagen. In late 1984 McCarthy asked Earnest to come back and he did, subsequently becoming Associate Chair of the Computer Science Department, but the onset of an misdiagnosed physical disability eventually forced him to retire in 1988 and he did not get it fixed until 1998, 14 years after the onset.

     In 2004, Sebastian Thrun, who had earned a PhD at the CMU Robotics Lab working on self-driving vehicles, joined the Computer Science Department, then located in Gates Hall, and revived SAIL, which is still going today. Thrun went on to fame as the creator of Stanley, a Stanford robot car that was the first to win the DARPA Race Across the Desert in Southern California. He then took that technology to Google, which much later put it into a company called Waymo, which is part of the Alphabet Corporation that includes Google.

     In 2009, Earnest helped set up a reunion of early SAILors together with the new group, who were developing both self-driving vehicles and self-flying drones, among other things. He then used this web site as well as a newly created sailaway email list, set up with email addresses from early SAILors, to invite participation. After that success, he used both media to put together more reunions, the most recent being in May 2015. Earnest also found that posting opinions here often drew insightful comments from former colleagues, who are now spread around the world in academic institutions, rich corporations, and governmental bodies. He enjoys those exchanges, knowing the peculiarities of most of the commenters, and plans to continue this practice until he croaks.

     In 2016, Earnest decided to experiment with allowing anyone to send anything to the sailaway list, which turned out to be a disaster, so it has since been restored to moderated e-list. Perhaps when Earnest becomes disabled or dead, someone else will to take over, but he plans to live until 2043, at age 112.

     SAIL now has a lot to brag about, given that:

·      The four richest publicly-traded corporations in the world at the end of 2018 were all SAIL spinoffs: (Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Amazon in that order.

·      18 SAILors have received ACM Turing Awards, widely viewed as the Nobel Prize for computer science and evidently more than any other lab in the world.

A SAIL document and program archive running from 1972 to 1992 is available online at saildart,org, courtesy of Bruce Baumgart.


L. Earnest (ed.), J. McCarthy, E. Feigenbaum & J. Lederberg, The first ten years of artificial intelligence research at Stanford, Stanford University Report No. STAN-CS-74-409, July 1973. Summarizes research in computer vision and robotics (hand-eye systems and a robot vehicle), speech recognition, heuristic programming, representation theory, mathematical theory of computation, and modeling of organic chemical processes, all performed under a contract with the Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Ancillary projects included the development of a multi-processor timesharing system with display terminals on all desks, advanced programming languages (LISP and SAIL), the first interactive computer aided design system (SUDS) as well as research in higher mental functions, computer generated music and Mars picture processing.

L. Earnest, How a nosy bureaucrat accidentally created the first social networking and blogging service.  Many people seem to think that computerized social networking is a recent phenomenon, but it actually blossomed first in1975 aided by a program called Finger that was written for a different purpose, namely snooping on computer users. As sometimes happens when computer programs get into the hands of users, they flipped it over and used it for a different purpose, in this case for social networking and blogging, though those two terms did not come into general use until about 25 years later. 

Choosing an eye for a computer, Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab. Memo AIM-51, April 1967.  Develops performance models for alternative visual sensors and shows, among other things, that image dissector cameras (one of which had been purchased at great expense by Stanford on advice of an MIT professor) have much lower performance than inexpensive Vidicon cameras.

L. Earnest, Stanford Cart was born as a research platform for studying the problem of controlling a Moon rover from Earth. It then was reconfigured as an autonomous road vehicle for research in visual navigation, then went into show business for a few years. It now resides in a home for retired robots while awaiting a comeback.

J. McCarthy, L. Earnest, D. Raj Reddy and P. Vicens, A computer with hands, eyes and ears, AFIPS Vol. 33, (Proc. 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference), Thompson, Washington D.C. 1968.  Describes Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab research facilities and accomplishments in speech recognition, computer vision and robotics.

L. Earnest, Choosing an eye for a computer, Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab. Memo AIM-51, April 1967.  Develops performance models for alternative visual sensors and shows, among other things, that image dissector cameras (one of which had been purchased by SAIL at great expense) have much lower performance than inexpensive Vidicon cameras.

L. Earnest, A hummingbird with range, Jan. 1, 2009. The radar atop Mt. Umunhum, south of San Jose, California, which was part of the SAGE air defense system, managed to get even with me in 1966 for badmouthing the crooked system in which it operated.

L. Earnest, SAIL Away, The Analytical Engine, May 1995. Reviews some spin-offs of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL) that helped populate Silicon Valley.

J. McCarthy & L. Earnest, DIALNET and home computers, Proc. First West Coast Computer Faire, San Francisco, April 1977.  Described a system that provided ARPANET-like services to multiple users via switched telephone circuits, including email, file transfer and remote login.

J. McCarthy, D. Brian, G. Feldman, J. Allen, Thor—a display based time sharing system, Proc. SJCC 1967. Describes one of the earliest display based timesharing system.

Having Fun

C. Rieger, 54 second video of a SAIL Volleyball Game from1972 featuring Russ Tayler, John McCarthy, Norm Briggs, Les Earnest, Dave Smith and others.