Sinclair and the future
(Interview in Sinclair User, February
am a radical. I want to see a lot of changes"
Sir Clive Sinclair talks to Bill Scolding about his plans
for Sinclair Research and the world at large
"I DON'T KNOW how to persuade people of my dream."
Thus laments Sir Clive Sinclair, pioneer and proponent of
the Fifth Generation, the thinking machine's man.
The controversy over Artificial Intelligence, previously
confined to academic and scientific coteries, is now raging
on television, radio and in the national press. Battle has
been joined, too, in the pages of Sinclair User. Can mankind,
and should mankind, take on the role of God and breathe life
into a super-intelligent being? What are the consequences
if man succeeds?
In an attempt to put the record straight, Sir Clive talks
to Sinclair User about the future he is building and in which
we will be living.
We start, however, with the more immediate future, and Sinclair
Research's plans for 1985. Rumours of an improved QL, with
ROM based software and retailing at around £500, have
got the new year off to a traditional, speculative, start.
Sir Clive has no intention of being pinned down: "We
haven't made any such announcement." Does that mean he
denies it? "No, it means nothing of the sort."
Sir Clive is an old hand at these tactical exchanges; the
phrasing becomes all-important. If such a machine was to appear,
would upgrades be offered to owners of the old QLs, rather
in the manner of the 16K Spectrum upgrades? "I've no
idea ..." He considers the wisdom of that. "It must
be possible to do it and ... yes, we would do it. Yes, absolutely."
Unsure as to where that leaves us, we pass on to safer territory
and the much-talked about portable computer, which is to include
an in-built microdrive, a flat screen display and a real keyboard,
and cost about £300. Sir Clive does admit to something
along those lines. "It's not yet had the button pushed
because we're still doing some work on the display, and until
we have a display we're satisfied with we can't go ahead."
Ah, the controversial flat-screen display. Haven't there
been some problems with it, such as the picture being unstable?
"I don't know," Sir Clive shakes his head. exasperated.
"There seems to be a move around to knock our products.
The flat screen display is the best in the world, in terms
of 2" flat screens. Absolute wonder of technology. We
haven't had a single complaint..."
Some critics have suggested, nevertheless, that perhaps a
liquid crystal display ... "They must be out of their
tiny minds! God! I've yet to meet anybody who thinks a liquid
display is anything other than awful." But there have
been production problems with the screens. "When you're
building a plant that's always the case. Again, it's the bloody
press trying to find something at fault. We have the most
modern production plant in the world. Highly automated. Perfect
It has been well over a year since the microdrives were launched
and there is still only negligible software available. Sir
Clive is quick to accept responsibility. "That's our
fault. We haven't been able to make enough microdrive cartridges
available. The plan was to get the microdrives out there and
then to get the demand right up and the price right down.
At the moment they are not attractive to software houses."
Isn't Sinclair Research spreading them a bit thinly at present?
ICL is using them, the QL does too and even the planned portable
is to have a drive built in. "It's getting overwhelmed
by its own success," Says Sir Clive ingenuously. "We
are only holding he price up artificially to restrain he market
until we can meet it."
A bizarre remark, when Sir Clive acknowledges that the microdrive
Expansion Pack promotion was an attempt to encourage the market
to take an interest in the beasts again.
It's time for the old chestnut. When will the Spectrum come
down in price? "Hah! The old answer is the same. No plans
to do so."
Sir Clive leans forward, earnestly, "This will sound
like a sales story, but it's true. This Christmas sales of
micros have gone down, with one exception - sales of Spectrums
are better than last year. We are oversold; we can't supply
as many Spectrums as the stores want. A hell of a lot more
than last year." He's right, it does sound like a sales
story. What proportion of those are Spectrum Pluses? "We're
shipping rather more Pluses than Spectrums. It's about 60-40."
By bringing the Spectrum+ into the Commodore price range
Sinclair Research has invited comparisons between the two
machines, whereas before, the Spectrum had a clear advantage
in price. The Commodore 64 offered features which might seem
attractive to the customer - sprite graphics, enhanced sound,
arguably a superior keyboard.
"We wanted that to happen," says Sir Clive. "When
you compare the machines the Spectrum is actually the more
powerful. There is more available RAM."
The Commodore 64 is nevertheless at the top of some charts
- notably in Personal Computer News. "That's completely
false! We out-sell Commodore by two or three to one."
And the QL? "We're shipping them at the rate of 25,000
a month." That would mean sales in excess of 40,000 by
the end of 1984. "Something of that order."
What is Sir Clive's reaction to the recent survey, which
indicated that 25 percent of Spectrums sold are returned as
Sir Clive explodes: "That's the Acorn dirty tricks department!
Acorn did it. They hide behind ..." He gropes for suitable
invective. "It was their advertising agency. They got
this scruffy little outfit and all they did was to ring around
some independent retailers for three days - this is the prize
survey. Of course, they're biased because they were trying
to get the figures they want.
"The period over which they took the survey was the
quiet period of the year, March to September. We don't sell
many computers into the stores then but all the returns come
in from the previous Christmas, so you get a completely silly
and skewed result. That doesn't happen with Acorn because
they haven't sold any the previous Christmas."
Pausing for breath, Sir Clive continues. "We know what
our returns are and we're not proud of them. We get 13 percent
returned, and that is high. But over 40 percent have no faults
found, and a lot of the faults are very trifling.
"We are selling a lot of machines to a very young audience,
bloody good at spilling Coca Cola over them and otherwise
messing them up. The actual returns are nearer seven percent."
He ponders. "Maybe the instruction manual could be better."
An idiot's guide to plugging in a computer? "The Spectrum+
instructions are just that."
Pessimists are saying that the UK home computer market is
fast approaching saturation point. Manufacturers now have
to break out of the hobbyist market and convince people who
wouldn't normally buy a computer that it is something useful
- even essential - for the home. "I think the market
has peaked," Sir Clive agrees, "and will decline
in terms of hobbyists. It's a feeling I've got that the time
has come for serious computing."
Not, then, diary programs, telephone directories, recipe
planners, gardening books ... "We're all fooling ourselves
if we think we're going to sell a lot of machines on that
Micros in schools
The government scheme for placing computers in primary schools
finishes in January. Like the secondary school scheme, it
has not been considered a great success by teachers, who feel
that schools suffered because of the promotion of the BBC
micro, much more expensive than the Spectrum. Not surprisingly,
Sir Clive concurs. "The whole BBC business was outrageous,
and I'm very sad that it lost the country the coherence it
might have had."
The government has been strangely pleased with the scheme,
claiming that the school children of today are the first generation
of the computer literate. Sir Clive laughs. "I think
it's a question of not being frightened of computers. It's
not that we want them all to be able to program but to be
able to use the machines. Realistically, a lot more has been
done for computer literacy through the sales of machines to
play games on than anything the schools might be able to do."
At last we come to the matter of Sir Clive's speech
to the US Congressional Clearing House on the Future,
and the reply by Alexander Macphee in the November issue of
Sir Clive is not amused. "It was a silly article, outrageous
really. He had misquoted what I'd said ... or misinterpreted
it. He just doesn't want to believe."
One point with which Macphee disagreed was the suggestion
that 'our lives will parallel the lives of the Freeman of
Athens.' Sir Clive shrugs, "OK, that's the difference
between optimism and pessimism. I'm optimistic and I believe
that can happen and he's entitled to say he doesn't, but what's
There is a point. Sir Clive is in a position to shape that
future and to be optimistic isn't enough, he must be confident
that the consequences of his actions will be beneficial. Apparently,
he is. "I speak from some knowledge. I know that technically
we can make a machine as complex as the human brain. I don't
know that we can make it do what a human does but I think
it's very likely that we can.
"If one day we can make machines with human-like intellect
but free of human frailty, then in a sense we will have servants
in the way that the Greeks did. We'll have the sort of intelligent
beings which everyone can trust; the Russians can trust them,
and the Americans too. They will be without guile.
"I strongly believe we can have a better world for it.
Imagine, you could put one of these wondrous creatures down
in the middle of a village in India, to look after the people
there, to teach them ... oh, I don't know ..." His voice
tails off; perhaps he, too, is momentarily stunned by how
naive and patronising that sounds.
What I don't know is how to persuade people of ... my dream."
He is silent again.
In his speech, Sir Clive acknowledged many people would be
'unemployed and very miserable' as a result of increasing
computerisation, but it would be only 'a temporary pattern'.
"I think we will have a long bitter period now - the
next five years - when unemployment will remain high, and
then it will decline again. People want to work ... It's not
that new jobs aren't being created; they're being created
faster than ever. Employment will cease to be a worry of the
If that's true, then education must change dramatically from
what it is now, to gear people to fill the kind of jobs vacant
in the future. "Education is going to have to change
very much. We've got to give children taste and we've got
to teach them to be self-reliant."
That couldn't be further from what is happening now. Sir
Clive agrees, "I'm very worried. I was on television
the other day, saying exactly the same thing."
Sir Clive dismisses fears of an Orwellian society, a tyranny
of machine surveillance, yet the misuse of technology is rampant
today. "Absolutely. I don't mean that technology is not
misused. God knows it is in Russia."
Isn't it rather like inventing a gun, giving it to someone
supposedly responsible, and saying 'It's loaded, just don't
point it at anyone.'?
"No, it isn't like a gun, it's like a car. You've got
to be careful with it but it can take you all sorts of places.
It's true that things can be misused and I wouldn't be talking
to Congress and talking on television if I didn't think we
need to prepare for it."
Some of Sir Clive's wilder ideas would not be out of place
in the novels of Arthur C Clarke or James Blish. Has he been
influenced by science fiction? He smiles. "Yes, as a
child. I still do read some but I don't have much time."
Isn't he disappointed that the world of the 80s is so shabby
compared to what it should have been like? "I know, but
on the other hand ..." - A long pause, while he tries
to locate the other hand. He sighs. "Yes, it is rather
disappointing. We've all got televisions and what have we
got to watch but a lot of rubbish." And we've all got
computers and we're playing Jet Set Willy.
Sir Clive thinks again. "It's disappointing so far but
it's getting better ... Average people can travel to the continent
or the States, things which they could only dream about before."
What about the Third World, the famine in Africa? What price
progress? "So many governments don't look after their
own people; they misgovern to such an extent. It is depressing
because some things are done so well. The eradication of smallpox
- an unbelievable achievement. India now feeds herself. China
is an exporter of food. There are appalling slips back in
Africa and South America but it is not all loss."
"I believe very, very, strongly in free enterprise at
a small level. I also believe very strongly in the need for
a major overhaul in a lot of our institutions ..."
Sir Clive warms to his subject. "Why do we need three
separate forces? It's quite barmy. And what do we need them
for in the first place? Are we going to fight more wars? I
hope not. All you need is a bigger police force which can
be turned to the defence of the nation in emergencies. So,
I'm a radical. I want to see a lot of changes.
"Mankind does act selfishly, but that doesn't mean there
isn't altruism in people. Things will work out best if they're
allowed to. That is a kind of conservative viewpoint - an
Adam Smith viewpoint. I don't believe you'll get a worthwhile
society if you plan altruism into it. I believe in libertarianism.
"I wouldn't say I was right wing, but I'm certainly
not very left wing either. Middle of the road in most things,
but very radical. I'm very dissatisfied with British society
as it is today. "
The father of home computing in this country, and the father-to-be
of the next generation of machine marvels, shakes hands and
the interview is over. Mad scientist or industrial revolutionary,
entrepreneur or prophet, Sir Clive Sinclair is pressing on
regardless, building brave new worlds and carving a niche
for himself in the history books.
Only the future will tell us whether his endeavours are misplaced.
By then, of course, it will be too late.