Where does Clive Sinclair hide the lunacy of invention?
Where are the gluepots and balsa frames, the blueprints and heaps of futuristic junk? He is Britain's best-known inventor, its most visionary entrepreneur, and yet the town house office of Sinclair Research in the middle of the city is as airy and trig as a general's bedroom. Flowers in a vase. Neat piles of paper. Steel, glass and polished wood. Where is the flotsam of invention, the jetsam of genius?
"You see," says Sir Clive. "It's quite simple. I don't need much. Most of what I do is just think."
Thought, imaginative scientific thought, is the principal product of Sinclair Research. Clouds of figures and circuit boards roil in his head during long morning runs and while the music of Mozart pumps into his living room. The flow and scatter of invention is found in Sinclair's mind, not on his desk.
Precision and the ability to anticipate his society's desires are his hallmark. Sinclair's is the impulse of our age. His motto might be: "Make it Small. Then Make it Smaller."
The Sinclair Executive calculator he developed 12 years ago was the first truly pocket-sized model. Its design was one-tenth as large as any other at the time and was so elegant that it is enshrined today in the Museum of Modern Art. His ZX81 was the first computer to cost the consumer less than $100. A one-inch, flat-screened mini-TV was a marvel and is now widely imitated. This year Sinclair is promising the first in a series of electric cars.
"The inventor tries to meet the demand of a crazy civilization," Thomas Edison once groused in his diaries. Sinclair is doing just that, he says, by "deciding what might be useful and then, quite simply, making it." His inventions have earned him, at the age of 43, a personal fortune estimated at $150 million.
Clive Sinclair is also a time traveler, a Poor Richard for the computer age. He has the measured mien of an academic learned enough to forecast the technologies of the future but cautious enough to appear modest. He describes a world of robots and artificial intelligence as if it were a pleasant certainty no more threatening and no less inevitable than the approach of burnished autumn in the shires.
"It will be a golden age," he says, speaking the words of a prophet in the tones of a don. "The 1990s and beyond could be the best age since the Greeks.
"Freemen of Periclean Athens led not such different lives as we might live, for where we will have machines, they had slaves who served as teachers and as menials."
In an address to the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future in Washington five months ago, Sinclair said we are entering a "third revolution." The first was the age of planting and harvesting, the second of the machine and manufacturing and the third of the computer -- an age that will develop and improve itself through the use of robots and the leaps made in the transmission and manipulation of information.
The old age was dominated by carbon, the key element in the infernal world of industrial manufacturing.
The new age is the Silicon Age.
"I think it certain," Sinclair told the committee, "that in decades, not centuries, machines of silicon will arise first to rival and then surpass their human progenitors. 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 be stopped, there will be those that try, but it will happen nonetheless. The lid of Pandora's box is starting to open."
When mythic Pandora opened the forbidden container, she unleashed the evils of the world. Sinclair views the Silicon Age in more neutral terms, preferring to describe it rather than judge it in advance.
He sees computer-brained robots who can "think, do and even feel everything we can," robots that will "give birth to new generations of ever-improving robots." He sees school children learning "one-on-one" from computers "because machines are better able to teach and attend to the individual needs of the child." He sees commuters in "automatic personal vehicles" which travel safely and silently at 200 mph not on tires but on a field of "magnetic levitation."
Although his vision of the 1990s and of the 21st century depends on an irresistible rise of computers, Sinclair never uses one for his work. He doesn't even bother with calculators.
"I don't really need them for my work," he says. "I tend to use a slide rule."
While much of the economic debate in his country is focused on the survival of smokestack industries and their attendant unions, Sinclair is a rarity and even a folk hero in Britain, an electronics entrepreneur willing to tweak the Americans, Japanese and Germans.
When he was 12, his father went bust producing small tractors and the upper-middle-class Sinclair family could not afford to send him to Eton or Harrow. He attended 13 different schools, all of varying mediocrity.
Sinclair eschewed university training and went to work as a technical journalist. He published articles in magazines like Technical Wireless and became the editor and writer of a series of electronics manuals for Burns Publications.
Taking his father's failure not as a warning but as inspiration, Sinclair made a head-first leap into the entrepreneurial pool. At the age of 22, he bought 1,000 advanced transistors that had not worked in the computers for which they had been made. He knew the transistors would be valuable for other, less specified uses, and he wrote two books and an article saying as much. Mail-order sales of the transistors soared. Customers paid seven times what Sinclair had paid for them.
From 1964 to 1976, Sinclair repeated the formula, relying on inventiveness, a flair for publicity and a knack for getting credit from various suppliers. His success with radio kits and the Executive pocket calculator made him a rich man. He parked a Rolls-Royce in front of a regal old house in Cambridge.
But the electronics world changed swiftly, and soon mere innovation and effort were insufficient. As so many small- and medium-sized companies discovered, the race for computer profits went not to the swift, but to the large and swift. Sinclair was about to encounter failure on a scale greater than his father ever had in the tractor business. The Sinclair Executive pocket calculator had been first in its field in 1972, but four years later it was merely one pocket machine of many. Calculator prices plunged. The Black Watch, Sinclair's plastic digital wristwatch, was a failure. Production of the watch was delayed. When it did come out, consumers discovered the watch stopped in cold weather.
"Things could have been better," Sinclair allows.
Sinclair found himself losing money and unable to attract private investors and resorted to a partnership with the government-funded National Enterprise Board. The arrangement saved Sinclair from complete disaster but was short-lived. Sinclair told Fortune that "the NEB had a view of me as a mad inventor who couldn't run anything." The arrangement dissolved in 1979. The NEB had lost $17.3 million.
Oddly, Sinclair gained a measure of boldness and calm. With a group of his associates, he formed Sinclair Research. Within two years, the business was thriving, stunning the electronics world with the ZX80 and the ZX81 -- cheap, miniaturized computers that look like squashed telephones.
Computers provided Sinclair with a fortune, a political platform and a knighthood. No one who has thought for a moment about the human race becoming the second most intelligent being on earth does not feel a certain disquiet, a sense of moving into the second-place position held so serenely by the chimp.
"It's not unreasonable that people are frightened by the concept of artificial intelligence," says Sinclair. "It's really quite alarming to them.
"Isaac Asimov wrote about all this many years ago, looking at the philosophical problems that would arise. The hope was that we could build restraints into the robots which would make them obedient to us. But I don't know whether it will be as easy as that."
The science of artificial intelligence has proved something quite startling. Computers are growing more complex, more compact, more human.
"I believe we can achieve something as complex as the human mind by the year 2000," Sinclair says.
"As far as we know for certain, there is nothing a human can do, feel or experience, that a robot could not. That goes very much against the grain of some people. But, fundamentally, if they don't agree with that, their only grounds are a belief in the soul or some supernatural belief . . . But, you see, I don't believe we do have souls. It's conjecture. There's no evidence for it. It's simply a matter of faith.
"If we do have souls, it's unreasonable to think we could put them into robots. But the soul apart, there's nothing we couldn't do. And if you have robots that can do anything you can do, they will be able to build even smarter robots. That's the reproductive angle. The growth will be exponential."
Could robots have emotions?
"Oh, yes. I'm not saying we're about to do it, but there is no fundamental reason why not."
It's just a matter of more circuitry?
Sinclair is partial to the Conservative Party, believes Britain's unions have largely outlived their purpose and dearly hopes that any changes in economic policy move toward increasing laissez faire.
"There's nothing more democratic than the marketplace," he says. "It's the place where people vote every day, not just every four years."
Sinclair has a good idea how artificial intelligence could be employed but is not terribly keen on casting himself as an expert on how it should. And yet he knows where the trouble could arise:
"We're now going through a process of removing people from the manufacturing industry. It used to employ just about everybody; soon it will employ about 10 percent. The same thing happened with agriculture many years ago. Farmers used to comprise 60 or 70 percent of the population, but with the invention of mechanical aids, it fell to a fraction of that. We're experiencing difficulties with unemployment now as the need for workers in the manufacturing area decreases. But I'm confident that in the 1990s there will be a balance between the labor market and available jobs."
Slowly, certainly not at a pace equal to the rise of technology, writers and teachers and philosophers are listening to scientists like Sinclair. Books like Sherry Turkle's "The Second Self," are trying to understand a world in which children play with and learn from computers, a world in which the brain is not only encased in human bone, but in steel as well.
To visit Sinclair's office is to visit a realm of the future. With the light streaming through the windows and no machine more daunting than an old-fashioned electric typewriter in sight, this particular laboratory of the "third revolution" seems as simple and unthreatening as a suburban kitchen. But while Sinclair is an insistent optimist, he he is well aware of the abuses of technology, the dehumanizing potential it can hold.
"This doesn't have to be '1984,' " he says. "George Orwell wasn't predicting the future, really. He was warning us about totalitarian society. His predictions about where technology would be are largely accurate. He was saying, 'This is what life could be like.' And '1984' is what life is like in Eastern Europe. The railway train, the motorcar, any tool which extends the power of a man can be used by a totalitarian state. Fortunately, at least in our part of the world, the increase in technology has been accompanied by an increase in freedom."