Sega AI Computer (セガAIコンピューター)

Updates

Introduction

Around late 1986, Sega released the “Sega AI Computer”. This is one of Sega’s least well known and rarest systems. Not much is known about this system apart from a small amount of information in Japanese and American flyers and press articles. The information we have is still piecemeal and may be partly inaccurate.

Today we are making public, for the first time: all system roms extracted from the Sega AI Computer, data dumps from 26 my-cards and 14 tapes, many scans and photographs, and in collaboration with MAME developers, an early working MAME driver allowing this computer to be emulated.

The majority of these software titles had zero information about them on the internet prior to us publishing them: no screenshots, no photos or scans of actual software. Considering the elusive nature of this machine, it is possible that some games have never been seen or completed by anyone outside of their original development teams.

We hope that this release will be interesting to obscure game and computer historians and hobbyists alike. We will further amend it over time by releasing extra scans, hopefully improving emulation and publishing/discovering new information.


Extract from a US ad (1986)

System Specs

An early flyer suggest the possible planning or existence of: a BASIC programming ROM Card, a Disk Drive extension, a Bridge Unit featuring an 8-bit CPU, joystick peripherals and a microphone input.


Extract from a 1986 Japanese pamphlet

Quick comparisons with other pieces of hardware:

Touch surface

The system has a large touch surface. Most software titles are shipped with an overlay, providing a custom touch interface for each title. Some titles use the touch surface without an overlay to provide drawing capabilities.

Audio Specs

The system is capable of playing PSG audio, and FM audio when equipped with the Sound Box extension. It is also equipped with a “speech synthesiser” in the form of a chip capable of decoding ADPCM data. One of the 128 KB ROM contains speech samples for the 46 common sounds of the Japanese language, the other 128 KB ROM contains entire sentences which are used by the system. In addition, the system is also able to seek and play audio from the cassette drive.

So up to 4 types of audio can be mixed together: “I tried out a sampling of the software with the Sound Box, and many of them produced FM music instead of simple PSG without the box. All FM is mixed in with everything else, including the PSG, which is still used for rhythm hits; the speech chip, which is used in "Popo's Adventure" ("take a big hamburger" it says, eg.); and the sound from the cassette, which is mostly narration and hints.”.

Attach:MPR-7619.mp3Attach:MPR-7620.mp3
Decoded ADPCM data from MPR-7619 ROMDecoded ADPCM data from MPR-7620 ROM

Software Storage

The system can boot software from small-sized cards similar to Master System and PC Engine cards. Unlike Master System-era cards, which could carry a maximum of 32 KB of data, the Sega AI Computer cards can carry 128 KB and 256 KB of data.

The 128 KB cards have their whole memory space mapped through card pinouts (17 pins). The 256 KB cards have a simple Master System-style bank-switching mapper embedded.

The system can also boot software from its cassette drive. Sega AI Computer cassettes are stereo, with one channel dedicated to storing encoded data, and the other to storing regular audio. This allows certain loading operations to be playing background music during the load, including snippets from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Artificial Intelligence?

Documents describe it as a full-featured computer with an educational twist. The system itself sports markings with a promising “SEGA PROLOG…. Bringing you into the world of artificial intelligence”.

Effectively all the software we found so far is educational and mostly aimed at kids. The system hardware was definitely not used to its maximum potential, although later 1988-1989 software titles are of higher quality than earlier ones. A US prototype suggests that some form of LISP exists, but we weren’t able to get access to it yet.

The Prolog interpreter appears to be used by existing software to allow some form of natural language processing. It doesn't seem accessible to the end-user.


One of the most important English sources is a July 24, 1986 article from “Electronics” magazine, which we are reproducing here in its entirety:

“CHILDREN'S COMPUTER BRINGS AI INTO THE HOME
TOKYO Recent advances in logic-programming languages and processor and peripheral chips are making artificial-intelligence applications practical in the low-end home computer market. The first product that will seek to prove this point is the AI Computer, which Sega Enterprises Ltd. of Tokyo will start selling in Japan next month for $547.
The Sega AI Computer is built to run programs written in the Prolog AI language. It is strongly oriented toward computer-aided-instruction, especially for children, rather than the catchall hobbyist-to-professional target of other home computers. Perhaps its simplest AI application is a personal diary program that can be used two ways: in a simple word-processing mode for children with some writing facility and in a prompt mode.
In the prompt mode, the child is asked about his or her activities during the day and replies with one- and two-word answers. The computer program then writes a grammatically correct diary entry based on those replies. In more advanced CAI applications, the computer is more flexible than previous systems. It can parse a user's natural-language inputs and evaluate the person's ability level. It can then proceed to material of appropriate difficulty, rather than simply advancing one level at a time.
The success of the AI Computer will depend almost totally on the software available for it, and Sega has already forged ties with the educational community to develop courseware for 3- to 8- year-olds. Its partner in this endeavor is general trader Marubeni Corp.'s Visual Information Section, Corporate Development Department, Tokyo, which is working with various educational organizations to create the programs.
Sega plans to work also with Linguaphone Institute (Japan) Ltd., Tokyo, to develop English-language instruction programs. Courseware in English should be ready next year, and the Sega AI machine then will be introduced in the U. S.
Rather than employing the Basic-language interpreters of most personal computers, Sega's AI machine uses a run-time Prolog-language interpreter residing in 128-K bytes of read-only memory. The Prolog interpreter is for running applications only — it cannot be used for programming. The company chose the Prolog AI language because of its ability to handle unformatted input and to parse natural-language input. Prolog is not especially suitable for driving displays and controlling peripherals, so Prolog functions call up fast, efficient assembly-language subroutines for these tasks.
ENHANCED MATH. Sega Prolog was developed jointly with CSK Research Institute, the AI lab of software house Computer Services Corp., Tokyo. In addition to the assembly-language calls, the language's mathematical performance was enhanced for the AI Computer.
The computer's hardware is designed for high performance at low cost. It is built under contract by Nippon Gakki Co., Shizuoka, a leading maker of MSX- compatible computers and electronic musical instruments. The microprocessor is NEC Corp.'s V-20, an enhanced version of the Intel 8088 implemented in CMOS. The Prolog interpreter is stored in 128-K bytes of read-only memory, and main memory is 128K bytes of dynamic random-access memory. Video memory is 64-K bytes of DRAM, expandable to 128-K bytes. A Centronics compatible printer interface is standard. The system's power supply has sufficient capacity to run an optional 3 1/2-in. floppy-disk drive. The machine also comes with a tape recorder for digital input or natural-language audio output, and an eight-direction cursor controller.
The Sega Computer has a tablet on its sloping upper surface that takes overlays for various applications. One that will be used in many children's programs is a Japanese-language touchpad, which includes all phonetic-syllabary characters along with variations annotated with one of two standard marks. The technique was designed to meet the needs of young users, who might not be adept at using a traditional Japanese keyboard where the operator strikes character and mark-only keys in succession to obtain the desired syllable. For older children and adults, the computer also provides the new Japanese industrial-standard keyboard,, which fits on top of the tablet to save desk space. Applications programs are usually supplied as plug-in ROM cards with a capacity off up to 128-K bytes, although the built-in cassette tape recorder and optional 3 1/2-in floppy disk drive can also be used.
ROM versions of Basic and Logo are available for users who want to write programs in those languages. A I28-K RAM expansion kit and a I28-K RAM card are available for disk-based applications or languages that require extra memory.
-Charles L Cohen
Electronics/ July 24, 1986“

We eventually found one...

In September 2014, more than a decade after the last public sighting, a user of Yahoo! Auctions in Japan put a Sega AI Computer unit for sale along with 15 software titles, all listed separately. With help from a few generous individuals and associations, we decided to buy everything and work on it. Since that time, several other units have appeared on Yahoo Auctions, but rarely ever came with software again. We however slowly managed to gather more software from other sources. At the end of 2022, another meaningful set of auctions including a boxed keyboard and 10 earlier iterations of known software were sold, which we also managed to acquire a year later from the initial buyer.

The hardware and software acquired in the first batch were stamped with mention of the Aomori Minami Hoikuen (青森南保育園) in Tokyo. The Sega AI Computer appears to have been mostly sold to Japanese schools. It is unknown how many were manufactured, how many were sold, and if Sega had further plans to market the machine to a wider audience. The December 1986 and January 1987 issues of “Copel 21”, a Japanese science magazine for kids, included an order form to purchase the Sega AI Computer for 87500 yens, and the Kumon Wonderschool set in 17 installments of 9990 yens.

An usually long 1986-1989 life cycle?

Many software titles have a date printed in their manual. They range from August 1st, 1986 to May 1st, 1989. There are two versions of the My Card for “AI Enikki”: one dated 1986 and one dated 1989. At least 10 titles were released in 1986 on cassettes, then re-released in 1987-1988 on cards. In both instances, the later software versions have been updated and are more advanced.

The presumed software release timespan (at least 33 months between August 1986 and May 1989) is particularly odd considering this is an extremely rare and unknown system. Why would Sega update and re-release software? Did they do an early confidential launch, then decided to go back to the drawing board to improve software, only to do a similarly confidential relaunch? Did Sega have contracts in place with customers e.g. schools to keep on delivering software for a certain time? We're not sure!

The ad and order form from COPEL 21 December 1986 issue suggest that at least it was possible to purchase the Sega AI Computer from that time.

Who worked on the Sega AI Computer?

Caution: Information here is extremely piecemeal and may be inaccurate.

Black Squirrel thoughts: “It is likely a CSK product with Sega branding. CSK was Sega's parent company at the time (they bought Sega in 1983) and seem to have used the AI Computer as an attempt to get into the educational market. CSK also had subsidiaries producing hardware and software - CRI (CSK Research Institute) seems to be responsible for "Sega Prolog", the closest this thing gets to an operating system. I don't know if this means CRI were secretly producing the software on cards and cassettes under the Sega name, or if there were genuine Sega people involved (I noticed a credit for Shun Arai on the sound board - he was a Sega man). Perhaps they thought kids would engage more if they saw a Sega logo in 1986 rather than a CSK/CRI one?”

“Sega's use of the term "AI" or "artificial intelligence" is a bit loose, even for 1986. It's a far cry from the likes of ChatGPT - I think the Sega AI Computer is giving the illusion of intelligence by recognising and responding in real human languages (English? Japanese? Both?) rather than 20 GOTO 10. The selling point seems to be "it's not BASIC, it's not assembly, it's Prolog!"”

“The promotional material is hinting at modems and printers and microphones and mysterious boxes - not sure how much of that came to pass. There's talk of an "8-bit CPU board" - maybe that's where MSX2 compatibility comes in? I don't know what the plan was there - perhaps it was a fallback if AI Computer software didn't take off.”

“It does have some legacy though: starting with the Mega Drive, games on Sega platforms were required to have a ROM header: https://segaretro.org/ROM_header. If it was a game, it was designated "GM", but educational software was designated "AI". ”

Emulation

A MAME driver has been developed by Wilbert Pol and Fabio Priuli, based on hardware research by Chris Covell. Code has been merged, and 2024/01/31 release will partial emulation of the Sega AI Computer. If you want to try it today:

Instructions to run MAME

The game identifiers in MAME’s format are: aienikki, alicewor, andersen, arabiann, cinderel, columbus, cosmictr, eigogame, eigoohan, gulliver, henshin, mozartac, oceanfan, okeihana, pinponmm, pinponmr, pinponnm, ranranme, robinson, runrunmu, tantanrh, wakuwaku.

Controls

Known emulation bugs as of January 2024:

Software Titles

What we found so far

See our site listings (every game has its own page):

All software we found so far is mostly in the Japanese language and tends to be text-heavy, making them difficult to play for non-Japanese readers. We hope that our scans and screenshots can still give you a sense of what they are.

AI Enikki

System boot screenAI EnikkiAI Enikki

Kumon Wonderschool (two sets)

Two sets exists: an earlier tape-only set, and a later card-only set. Only the card versions are emulated so far. The tape version were released 1-2 years before and appear to be different software with different contents.

Cosmic Train: 1987 tape versionCosmic Train: 1988 card version
Alice World [Card version]Alice World [Card version]Alice World [Card version]
Cosmic Train [Card version]Cosmic Train [Card version]Andersen Dream [Card version] 
Arabian Night [Card version]Cinderella Labyrinth [Card version]Columbus Map [Card version]
 
Gulliver Pocket [Card version]Gulliver Pocket [Card version]Mozart Academy [Card version] 
Ocean Fantasy [Card version]Ocean Fantasy [Card version]Robinson Land [Card version]]

Ongaku Wonder School

Runrun MusicTantan RhythmRanran Melody

English Wonder School

 
Popo's Adventure: Popo no YumePopo's Adventure: Popo no Yume 
Folk & Fairy TalesFolk & Fairy TalesFolk & Fairy Tales

Surasura Moji Wonder School

Henshin KanjiWaku Waku ABC To 123Waku Waku ABC To 123

Pinpon Pasokon

Pinpon Pasokon splash screenPinpon Music MelodyPinpon Music Melody

What we haven't found so far

AI Enikki: Cassette version was spotted in an auction, we couldn’t acquire it.

Edison Labo: mentioned in Kumon Wonder School Japanese flyer, with screenshots.

Mentions of other titles at SukaSega's AI page (exact source unknown)

COPEL 21 December 1986 and January 1987 issues contains an ad showing 18 boxes (likely mockups) with readable names:

It is unlikely that those titles were all finished or released, but we have screenshots for “Edison’s Labo” in a flyer so this one was likely developed.

Downloads

System Roms

The system dumps amount to a total of 590 KB of uncompressed data.

Software Roms & Overlay

The 26 Sega My Card dumps amount to a total of 4.2 MB of uncompressed data. We also scan all overlays at had at our disposal.

MAME ready Roms folder

As MAME use specific naming convention for its files, we provide a readily usable folder:

Tapes recordings

Important: Very large data. The 14 cassettes (16 sides in total) currently amount to about ~1.2 GB of data. Please don't download unless you have use for this: the cassette system is NOT emulated a the time of writing, thus the data from our cassette dumps was not yet certified as “correct” (as in, passing the Sega AI Computer loading routines and probable checksum checks). According to early research, tapes are using a FSK modulation scheme, with a theoretical maximum bit-rate of 9600 BPS which is very high for its time. Actual bit-rate used seems at least two times lower. We are currently releasing 48 Khz, 24-bit stereo lossless FLAC. It is probable that once emulated, we can settle on a compact format for the data segments, or can tell what level of audio compression is adequate for loading in a real system and emulators.

Tape downloads are available from our Our Big Shared Folder.

Hardware Manuals

Software Scans

Flyers & Ads

Photos

See our Big Shared Folder for:

Magazine Scans

Technical documentations

Links

Our big shared folder

External resources

Site sections

Forum threads

Research credits

Credits

Chris dumping speech romsCharles adapter

Special Thanks

About SMS Power!



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