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The great race

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The Fifth Generation: Artificial Intelligence and Japan's Computer Challenge to the World, by Edward A. Feigenbaum and Pamela McCorduck. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley. 288 pp. $15.55.

In the 4th century BC the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu pointed out that knowledge is power. With it, he wrote, one can accomplish deeds surpassing all others.

His observation is particularly relevant today, as the race for dominance in Information Age technology speeds up, with the Japanese challenging the United States for the honor and the rewards of being first and best.

Ten years from now, if all goes according to schedule, 40 Japanese researchers and their flamboyant leader, Kazuhiro Fuchi, will introduce ''fifth generation'' computers, machines capable of intelligent reasoning that will be able, in effect, to troubleshoot problems of many kinds through factual and intuitive programs.

The impact of these machines on everyday work is expected to rival the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution a century ago. Thus the country that introduces them stands to rise to world economic and strategic preeminence.

This is the prediction of authors Edward A. Feigenbaum and Pamela McCorduck. In ''The Fifth Generation: Artificial Intelligence and Japan's Computer Challenge to the World'' they urge the United States to respond more vigorously to the Japanese challenge.

Some American computer companies are also hastening to build fifth-generation computers, though without the kind of concerted, government-sponsored effort mounted by the Japanese.

Feigenbaum and McCorduck point out that the US has a two- to three-year lead in the necessary technology, but warn that ''we are squandering our lead at the rate of one day per day.'' They add, ''We are writing this book because we are worried.''

The concern is underlined in red throughout the book, which offers a fascinating and clearly written history of ''AI'' (artificial intelligence), along with the authors' views of its future. They also present an interesting sociological comparison of the Japanese and US approaches to research. The first several chapters praise Japan's accelerating progress in computer development and the careful research guidance provided by the country's Ministry for International Trade and Industry.

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