(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
"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
"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
"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
"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 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
"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
"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."