Sir Clive Sinclair, who was among those who brought affordable home computing to the masses in the 1980s, and probably helped spur the programming interests of many embedded systems developers today, died this week at his home in London at the age of 81.
I am sure there are others like me who owe a lot of our interest in electronics, computing, and gaming to the Sinclair ZX81, and its predecessor the ZX80; there was also the color ZX Spectrum, which was like a Rolls Royce version of the ZX81, in full color and enabling many more new gaming thrills and opportunities.
But looking back at old copies of Sinclair User magazine, I recall the community spirit that evolved around it. Just like you may have online forums today, back then, there were regular print magazines that would have users share program code, programming tips, how to improve games, as well as how you could make use of your ZX81 computer in real life every-day activities.
Having started out as a technical journalist after leaving school in 1958, Sinclair was a serial electronics industry inventor and entrepreneur (see his chronicled history here), though not necessarily all of them were successful. He started developing micro-amplifiers, a portable TV, a hi-fi system and even scientific calculators. Along the way, Chris Curry, who went on to co-found Acorn Computers, also worked with him for 13 years. Curry has a very interesting interview recorded in 2015 who talks about working with Clive Sinclair.
But it was the launch of the ZX80, ZX81, and Spectrum in 1980, 1981, and 1982 respectively that really made Sinclair a true household name in the computing and gaming industry. He then tried his hand at other inventions like the Sinclair C5 car, which wasn’t a success, though launched with great fanfare.
Sinclair’s silicon dreams
Despite this, I believe he is among our industry’s true pioneers and visionaries. I found a speech he is said to have given in early 1984 at the U.S. Congressional Clearinghouse on the future, entitled “Silicon Dreams”. In it he talks about a future based on silicon and seemed to point out many things that have become or are close to becoming reality today.
Quoting from it, he said:
“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.”
Taking about the intelligent microprocessor
He then goes on to talk about embedding intelligence.
“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 program 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 program 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.”
Computing machines assisting humans
He then talked about computing machines will assist humans:
“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.”
“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.
Sinclair on autonomous vehicles
Sinclair also described the advent of autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles:
“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.”
Highlighting how IoT will evolve
Sinclair then talked about other areas including electronic tagging of offenders and on cellular telephony. He clearly understood the possibilities of the internet of things (IoT):
“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.”
“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 be 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.”
The full speech is at Planet Sinclair and was reproduced in Sinclair User’s archives here. Sir Clive Sinclair, 1940-2021, will be remembered as a pioneering inventor and entrepreneur who opened minds to the possibilities of computing among the wider public, and who was part of an era that created a whole new generation of computer programmers.