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Silicon Dreams
(Speech to U.S. Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, reproduced in Sinclair User, August 1984)

Silicon-based life-forms will inhabit the cities of the future, Sir Clive Sinclair told the U.S. Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future. The speech, made earlier this year, is reprinted below.

"WE HAVE been told we are at the start of the second industrial revolution, a concept which seemed radical yesterday, commonplace today. I agree with the idea, though it might be more useful to consider the process we are experiencing as the third rather than the second revolution.

"By my counting, the first occurred when mankind learned to plant and harvest, so ending the nomadic age of the hunter gatherer, who perforce spent most of his time, at least during long parts of the year, in pursuit of food.

"The farmer, as we have come to think of these first revolutionaries, was able by his husbandry to feed himself and several others, freeing those from the need to feed themselves. They turned to making things - spades for the garden, buckets and bowls for the house, chariots and ships in which to explore the world. They began to write and record, to frame laws and protect large areas from their enemies.

"Many must have mourned the loss of a simpler, more innocent existence; indeed, the story of the garden of Eden may reflect this but the change broadened mankind, the population grew and spread. There was no chance of return.

"The second great change occurred around the end of the eighteenth century when we learned to make things not with hand-held tools but with machines. In truth, the change was a gradual one; garment-making machines, though hand-powered, pre-date the pyramids and many examples can be found in Roman times of large-scale industry. So perhaps the essential element in what we call the industrial revolution was the invention of steam power, which not only provided the engines for industry but also the power for transport. The energy in coal replaced the energy in wind.

"Again population leapt, again men travelled far more, again yet larger territories were defended, again men came to long for an arcadian past which existed more in fancy than in truth, but the simple items of our daily life, the furnishings of our dwellings, became immensely more abundant. Many more were freed by this profusion to lead more contemplative, studious lives in our universities to the eventual benefit of the advance of science.

"So we come to the third great change which is seen to be upon us, the second industrial revolution as it may be. Partly this is concerned with the replacement of people in factories by robots and computers. Partly, it is the leap made possible in the manipulation and transmission of information. Wholly it is down to the computer in one way or another and once again millions of people will be freed by the change to adopt other pursuits.

"From a positive viewpoint they are free from the drudgery of the mill. Negatively and realistically they are unemployed and very miserable. This is a sad consequence and we are not so well able to manage our affairs as to prevent it but it is a temporary pattern, I believe, caused by the incredibly rapid loss of manufacturing employment. Where in the 1940s 50 percent of people worked in factories, not 10 percent will work only half a century later. This revolution will broaden horizons as much as the other two.

"This, then, is one way of looking at the way we live that is current and becoming popular. It is probably reasonable but if we focus on an analogy with the industrial revolution, we will miss a much more dramatic analogy. Instead of looking back centuries and millennia for a comparison with our times, I would draw you back a million times further into the past than the beginnings of civilisation.

"Four thousand million years ago, when the universe was only half the size it is now and the solar system only five million years old, a singular thing happened - life. By some ineluctable process in the primordial soup, stirred by fierce cosmic rays and bolts of lightning, carbon compounds of strange complexity, formed and re-formed, growing in subtlety until they came to transmute sunlight and to replicate. For a billion years these first bacteria, so mysteriously conjured, clumping together to form living reefs called stromatolites, were the only life. Yet three billion years later they evolved into mankind.

"I said that the event that started this process was singular and so, for all we know, it was. So it will long remain. All life is carbon-based and carbon is exceptional in the variety of compounds to which it leads, providing organisms with a rich choice of building materials. If we ever discover life on other planets we would not be surprised to find it similarly based on carbon but it might not be so.

"When I was a boy I read science fiction stories and in those days a common theme was the discovery of a life form strangely different from ours. A popular idea was for life based not on carbon compounds but on silicon on the grounds, I believe, that silicon, too, can form a wealth of products, many of them physically useful. Soon, I suggest, those stories will seem strangely prescient, for silicon-based life will exist. It will not have emerged from millions of years of trial and error in energetic protoplasm but from a mere century or less of man's endeavour. I am suggesting that the path the silicon-based electronics industry is on will lead to life.

"The human brain contains, I am told, 10 thousand million cells and each of these may have a thousand connections. Such enormous numbers used to daunt us and cause us to dismiss the possibility of making a machine with human-like ability but now we have grown used to moving forward at such a pace we can be less sure. Soon, in only 10 or 20 years perhaps, we will be able to assemble a machine as complex as the human brain and if we can we will. It may then take us a long time to render it intelligent by loading in the proper software or by altering the architecture but that, too, will happen.

"I think it certain that in decades, not centuries, machines of silicon will arise first to rival and then surpass their human progenitors. Once they surpass us they will be capable of their own design. In a real sense they will be reproductive. Silicon will have ended carbon's long monopoly - and ours, too, I suppose, for we will no longer be able to deem ourselves the finest intelligence in the known universe. In principle it could he stopped; there will be those who try but it will happen nonetheless. The lid of Pandora's box is starting to open.

"Let us look a little closer to the present. By the end of this decade manufacturing decline will be almost complete, with employment in manufacturing industries less than 10 percent in Britain. The goods are still needed but, as with agriculture already, imports and technical change will virtually remove all employment.

"Talk of information technology may be misleading. It is true that one of the features of the coming years is a dramatic fall, perhaps by a factor of 100, in the cost of publishing as video disc technology replaces paper and this may be as significant as the invention of the written word and Caxton's introduction of movable type.

"Talk of information technology confuses an issue - it is used to mean people handling information rather than handling machines and there is little that is fundamental in this. The real revolution which is just starting is one of intelligence. Electronics is replacing man's mind, just as steam replaced man's muscle but the replacement of the slight intelligence employed on the production line is only the start.

"The Japanese, with the ICOT program, are aiming to make computers dealing with concepts rather than numbers with thousands of times more power than current large machines. This has triggered a swift and powerful response in the American nation. There is a large joint programme of development among leading U.S. computer companies; it is at least as large as DARPA program and IBM, though it says nothing, may well have the biggest programme of all.

"These projects are aimed at what are loosely termed fifth-generation computers. These are really a new breed of machine entirely and will be as different from today's computers as today's computer is from an adding machine. Powerful as these new engines will be, they will not remain inordinately expensive, thanks to the progress of the semiconductor industry. Once available they will start to replace human intelligence at ever higher levels of abstraction.

"The simple microprocessor provides sufficient intelligence for current assembly line robots. As robots learn to see and feel, their brains will grow. Eventually, and not too far in the future, they will make decisions on the production line currently delegated to a supervisor.

"Outside the factory we employ men's minds in two principal ways, as fonts of knowledge and as makers of decisions. The former of these attributes is now falling prey to the machine with the development of 'expert systems' whereby the acquired knowledge of a man, an expert in mining for example, is made to repose in the memory of a computer. The transfer of data from human to machine mind is neither easy nor swift but, once attained, it may be copied at will and broadcast. A formerly scarce resource can thus become plentiful.

"The ability to reach wise conclusions, as we expect of a doctor or lawyer, from much or scant data will long remain man's monopoly but not always. Fifth-generation computers will share this prerogative. Tomorrow we may take our ailments to a machine as readily as to a man. In time that machine will be in the house, removing the need to journey to the doctor and providing a far more regular monitoring of the state of health than it is now economic to provide.

"The computer as surrogate teacher may bring even more benefits. Today, and as long as we depend on humans, we must have one teacher to many pupils. The advantage of a tutor for each child is clear and if that tutor is also endlessly patient and superhumanly well-informed we may expect a wonderful improvement in the standard of education.

"What, though, is the purpose if, in this imagined future, there are no jobs? Curiously we can find analogies in the past. Freemen of Periclean Athens led not such different lives as we might live, for where we will have the machines, they had slaves who served both to teach and as menials. Thanks, perhaps, to their fine education, the freemen of Athens seem not to have found difficulty in filling their time. Just as they did, we will need to educate our children to an appreciation of the finer things of life, to inculcate a love of art, music and science. So we may experience an age as golden as that of Greece.

"Machines will be capable of replacing men in tasks requiring complex motor functions. Strangely I think it may be easier to make a machine to teach mathematics or Latin than to make one to play tennis, for the latter task calls for an astonishingly fine and rapid prediction and decision, coupled to precise action, but still it can and will be done. Not to relieve us of the pleasure of playing games but to relieve us of the monotony and danger of nearly as complex a task, that of driving a car.

"We took to cars for the freedom they conferred to travel from any one place to another at any time, secure from the elements. We have paid a price in the mortality of our peoples and the pollution of our lands. We have chosen to restrain these remarkable vehicles to much less than half the speeds they could readily attain to mitigate these two evils.

"The future promises a better solution. I anticipate totally automatic personal vehicles still with all the freedom in space and time of today's cars but guided by machine intelligence. They will be powered by electricity drawn from internal batteries in towns and on minor roads and from a main supply of the highways, possible coupled inductively into the vehicle. These latter-day cars will be well nigh silent and clean but, above all, free from human fallibility. They need not then be restricted to 55 or 70mph on main roads. Speeds of more than 200mph should be safely and economically possible.

"Magnetic levitation might replace wheels with advantages in the quality of ride, in silence and in the longevity of the vehicle which, having no moving parts, would need no regular servicing. It is entirely possible that the performance of these vehicles will become such as to obsolete aircraft for all but the longest journeys and those over water.

"The linking of the telephone to ever more sophisticated computing machinery is leading to major improvements in the service available. The latest of these is the cellular radio system of communication now growing in this and certain other American cities. I see this as a partial solution to the general problem of permitting people to telephone one another, no matter when or where. It is but temporary economic restraint, not technical fundament, which bars us from the logical conclusion of truly personal telephones. Carried on or about the person, these wireless devices would allow us to telephone and be telephoned wherever we choose. I would not need to know the whereabouts of the person I was calling, only his number, since this would be particular to him wherever he was, instead of a fixed instrument as is usual now.

"I believe this is achievable by an extension of the cellular principle in area and capacity, the latter requiring much finer granularity in the system. That is to say the controlling transceivers will need to be far more closely spaced.

"It often seems that each new step in technology brings misery rather than contentment but this is because it brings change faster than benefits, and change, though often stimulating, is always disturbing. So it is and will be with the intelligence revolution but here the benefits to come handsomely outweigh the trauma. Even our most intractable problems may prove soluble.

"Consider, for example, the imprisonment of offenders. Unless conducted with a biblical sense of retribution, this procedure attempts to reduce crime by deterrence and containment. It is, though, very expensive and the rate of recidivism lends little support to its curative properties.

"Given a national telephone computer net such as I have described briefly, an alternative appears. Less than physically dangerous criminals could be fitted with tiny transporters so that their whereabouts, to a high degree of precision, could he monitored and recorded constantly. Should this raise fears of an Orwellian society we could offer miscreants the alternative of imprisonment. I am confident of the general preference.

"Intelligent robots will also help to care for the elderly who might even find companionship. Sleeplessly vigilant, the robot could provide for normal physical needs and watch for medical problems. As the intelligence of robots increases to emulate that of humans and as their cost declines through economies of scale, we may use them to expand our frontiers, first on earth through their ability to withstand environments mimical to ourselves. Thus, deserts may bloom and the ocean beds be mined.

"Further ahead, by a combination of the great wealth this new age will bring and the technology it will provide, we can really begin to use space to our advantage. The construction of a vast, man-created world in space, home to thousands or millions of people, will be within our power and, should we so choose, we may begin in earnest the search for worlds beyond our solar system and the colonisation of the galaxy."

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