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'Retirement party' for 25-year-old computer

STANFORD -- Stanford's computer science department is playing host to a combination birthday party, last rites and wake for one of the oldest operating timesharing systems in the world.

Les Earnest, former associate chairman of the department, is organizing the party in honor of SAIL (the main computer used by the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory), which began life in June 1966 as a DEC (Digital Equipment Corp.) PDP-6 system and has provided an intellectual home for research in artificial intelligence, robotics, analysis of algorithms, text processing and printing, and computer design, among other things.

Earnest says SAIL even played an important role in upgrading itself to a DEC-10 in the early 1970s and has spawned a number of successful commercial ventures.

"However, its time has come," Earnest wrote in his invitations to the party on Friday, June 7.

Like four mainframe computers used by students -- named Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth and Othello -- the SAIL system is being phased out as Stanford and most other major computer users get out of the time-sharing business in favor of distributed computing.

"We're pretty sure this is the only one left," Earnest said.

Time sharing is the simultaneous use of a large-capacity mainframe computer by many users at remote terminals. Distributed computing gives each user control of a computer, much like a personal computer, that is connected on a network.

People with access to Stanford's computer network can obtain a copy of SAIL's "last words," which Earnest says are "likely to be a boastful account of its accomplishments," by sending an electronic mail message (content not important) before the big day to Farewell@SAIL.Stanford.edu.

The "wake" starts at 2 p.m. Friday at Margaret Jacks Hall with a treasure hunt in which artificial intelligence background will prove helpful, Earnest said. Also scheduled are games ranging from volleyball to programming contests on SAIL.

"A complication is that SAIL has not been maintained for many months and is showing Alzheimer symptoms," Earnest said.

Following refreshments and birthday cake, SAIL is scheduled to send its farewell messages to the world at 7 p.m. and "politely expire."



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