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Question Time
(Interview in The Sinclair Story, 1985)

I loved Question Time because you meet interesting people - it's great fun.

I asked Sinclair why he'd been chosen for this weekly television panel of punditry, run by benign, no-nonsense chairman Robin Day. I had thought that the balance was the three political parties and one industrialist Sinclair had been on the panel when the programme was broadcast from Scotland, with its Timex relevance.

No, they get two people thinking from the left and two from the right. And usually one of the two on each side is a known politician, and the other is less obviously political . . . they think l think from the right.

But in fact, one's opinions may vary from a set party line I think it such a pity that affiliation to a political party appears to tie one's thinking to a set of national party standards whereas so many decisions should be made at a more domestic, local level.

Exactly. You and I not being politicians are ill-suited to Question Time; I think it benefits the programme to have people who think for themselves, but the politicians are very vocal because they've thought out a stock answer for almost every subject, whereas l have to dunk up something on the spot because most subjects I haven't given any thought to.

[So sometimes Sinclair's answers sound a bit terse. But if you listen to a politician answering questions, you will often hear the automatic pilot being switched on, and the standard wording being fed out. Sometimes 'not answering the question' springs not from a desire to be evasive, but from an inability to switch off the programmed spiel. It happens to all of us; people tend to ask predictable questions, and we give our prepared answers.]

What is all this computer power going to do for us?

The fifth-generation machine is a design principally concerned with thoughts and ideas as opposed to numbers. What I'm interested in what excites me - is making a machine which aids us as humans in the mental sphere in the same way as motors have aided us in the mechanical and the physical sphere. We've done very well there - right from the start of the industrial revolution we've been developing machines to aid us, and to take the burden off our muscles in every sense - machine tools, means of transport, domestic appliances, hand tools - that's gone very well; now's the time for doing the same thing for the intellect.

So far we've replaced human labour at the very lowest intellectual levels - no intellect's needed for washing up and so on - and now we're aiming at moving upwards and replacing intellect at the professional level. I think that what I'm doing is making a machine which will in due course sit in the home and replace - or supplement - the doctor, the solicitor, the teacher.

I get the impression that you're expecting Mr & Mrs Everybody to have a higher intellectual standard than I believe they actually have.

Oh no, not a bit; I'm not expecting that. I don't think that my machine will demand anything intellectually; it itself will have to have very great intellectual powers, but its users will have whatever intellectual powers they choose to have. The machine will be there, and it will advise them; they can ask it questions and it'll give them answers perhaps even tell them what to do. They can say: 'What's on television tonight?' and they won't have to worry about how it will get the information - it'll decide that; it'll ring up somebody or look it up in its memory banks, or find out by whatever means. Or they can say to it: 'What's the first train to London round about midday tomorrow?' or: 'I've got a pain in my right side and really haven't been feeling too well' - and it'll recognise them; it'll know who they are when they're talking to it.

TV programmes and trains to London - isn't this covered by teletext - Ceefax and Oracle?

Oh no, it's going to talk to you. If you go to teletext you've got to think: dial 100 or whatever - I meant it literally as I said it; you go to the machine and say: 'What's on TV tonight?' and it'll reply: 'What do you want to watch? Should I go right through the programmes, just tell you ITV. . . ?'

I see. Will it actually tune itself to my intellectual level?

Yes, certainly. It'll know the person; it'll deal with each person in the family as an individual. I hadn't thought of it as tuning to intellectual level but it's a nice way of putting it; that's what it will be doing.

Well, in a sense it is. The way I ask my questions and the sorts of questions I can answer when it asks me will vary according to who I am. How does the machine find out about me?

It's introduced to the family when it first arrives. You'll sit down and it'll say: 'Hello, tell me your name?' and you'll say: 'I'm Johnny' and it'll ask questions to find out all about you.

But what then? Do you really foresee that everyone's going to be sitting at home talking to computers?

I think it's a wonderful thing. I think it will remove a lot of loneliness for old people, and it'll improve the standards of education dramatically - because we'll be able to have individual tuition . . . whether it'll be done at home, or at school with each person sitting in front of one of these strange teachers, I don't know.

As I imagine it, you'd look at this machine and see a face there talking to you; it would have a personality. There wouldn't be a face; you 'd just see one . . . I imagine that people would generate an image of the sort of face they'd like to see - it would certainly assume different personalities for different people.

Of course - eventually you could pack it all into a body and make it into a robot . . .

That's a different can of worms; how far away do you think this is?

I think we can make a machine that does all this in the early 90s, but it'll be too expensive for domestic use until the turn of the century.

We've already got a problem of non-standardisation - computers which don't communicate with one another because they use different languages or formats or media. What about standardisation for these machines which are orders of magnitude more powerful?

Ah - this is a machine you talk to, so its language is natural.

Interesting thought - machines from different manufacturers would have their own internal standards, but they could communicate with one another in plain English - or Japanese. You could shut a group of them in a room and listen to them having a conversation. But what about the standards for storing the information for what's on the telly or what time the trains are?

It will refer to whatever systems are available, just as you do - or I do - now. It'll be so enormously intelligent that it will be able to cope with all the different forms of information.

It sounds like making a rod for your own back -

The machine's got to relate to the world as it finds it.

But if you have to alter the world . . .

No, you're trying to alter the world to fit in with this machine that I haven't yet developed.

So you'll need to have optical character recognition and something blinking over the times on the timetable?

I think it'll need to be able to read the papers . . I can see what you're saying and I don't deny that standards would help, but you've also got to be realistic. It probably won't happen to the extent that one might like - it would be nice if character fonts were standardised to make reading easier but that won't happen, so the machine's got to cope with that.

What is it that you find so terribly exciting about this idea?

I suppose it's because it'll be the first time that humans won't be the only known intelligence in the known universe. We don't have to wait for them to arrive from outer space; we can build them here.

Why do you want that to happen?

I don't particularly; I think it's exciting though!

So you treat it as an intellectual challenge rather than as an end product that you think will be useful?

On the contrary! I think it's a product which will be immensely useful. I think it will change mankind - create more wealth for mankind than any other development in history. I think that early in the next century we'll be able to make a robot with true intelligence and patience and all sorts of qualities; it will be able to walk into the Third World and advise them. These machines will be as the Greek slaves were to the Romans.

One difference is that you're not actually creating a slave class from existing people. In the case of the Greeks and the Romans you had a means for soaking up those who were not employers of slaves.

The people who employed the slaves were often the intellectual inferiors. The Greek slaves were superior to the Roman slave-owners. The Greek was often the intellectual - reading and writing letters, teaching the children and so on - that's why I'm using that particular analogy. So in that sense one doesn't see a need to mop up people.

Aren't some of today's problems borne of the fact that there is a shortage of menial jobs - or perhaps that many people have been 'educated' to have expectations beyond what they can achieve?

I don't know that they have been educated to believe that. I think there's a shortage of jobs at the moment because jobs have been shed from the manufacturing industry at such a rate that society can't adjust. Once that job-shedding ends, as it will, then I think society will adjust, and more and more people will be employed in service industries. I think this is happening in the States now. Even when we have robots people will prefer to be served by other human beings.

I think my view of what is happening is different from yours. I think unemployment started with the industrial revolution; when we talk about unemployment there are people who might have been farm labourers, or people who might have been looking after the cab horses

In 1850, 60 per cent of the population were either employed on the land or were servants, and it must have been unthinkable that those people could be elsewhere employed because they were the people who were thought of as only good for ploughing the land or scrubbing floors how on earth could they be employed? But they were.

That's what I mean about expectations. A servant who wanted to rise in the world could do so - well, theoretically. Most of them were content to do what they were doing and live from day to day in a simple fashion. They didn't think the world owed them a living. More benign employers and fewer potential employees with big ideas would work wonders for unemployment.

I think we'll go back to full employment in the early 90s. And then I think that one day much further ahead the robots really will be able to do everything that humans can - with all human actions and so on - it may be that people will prefer to be served by robots than by humans . . . in which case there won't be any jobs, unless the robots decide they don't want to bother with us! However, we won't have to face the problem until the twenty-first century, and it will depend on what people actually want to do; we might change our views about unemployment. Macmillan said to me: 'I don't know why people keep complaining about not having any work; some of my best friends never work at all and look at them'. People will be brought up to that way of thinking.

But they still have to have some means of support.

They need wealth, but that wealth will be created in abundance by the robot slaves. Think about it - supposing you could economically make a certain number of robots. They could make many more, and they could make a larger number still - so suddenly you've got lots and lots of them. And they could all go out and work, generate all the wealth - do anything you like; they're as intelligent as we are. They don't tire. I'm not saying when - but one day.

I think there's either a flaw in your argument or I'm not understanding it in the right way. I can't help wondering what on earth I shall do when robots are doing everything for me. I suppose they'll form their own bridge fours, and I can carry on as before. How far do you think the home computer has educated us for the future you describe?

I think that we've done the first and second stages of the job - we've got millions of people out there now who play with computers, who're familiar with keyboards; the next stage is to make a machine that's useful to them. An awful lot of computers have been bought by people who wanted to learn about computers - which is the intention - and to play games on them. But an awful lot of other people have bought them and found them inappropriate for their use. And we're really not winning if you still choose to use a pad to take your notes, rather than a computer. You can type, so if you had a machine which was sufficiently right for your needs you'd have it with you and put your notes straight into it.

But then if I had a machine which was sufficient to my needs it would actually transcribe what we're saying wouldn't it?

Oh yes, but the first sort of machine is just around the corner. It's not there yet, but it should be. It's what we've got to make; the opportunity is there. Instead of writing in your notebook, wouldn't you prefer to tell your machine where to file the data so you could retrieve it?

It all depends what one is used to. I find that, admirable as your idea might be, spreading out all my papers and saying: 'I want this sentence from here, and that sentence from there, and this paragraph in here . . . 'is something that you cannot do very well with a computer. Of course I know what you'll say about word processing, but I still need hard copy to be able to take a synoptic view of my material.

So you've tried to educate people, but they may have found that they can't do what they'd like to do with machines. Now, is there a danger that these people will go away sadly saying: 'Computers are not for us after all'? Do you really think you can take a second bite at the cherry; that you can come back with another machine and say: 'This will do what you had hoped'?

I think the disillusionment is among a very few people. The market that I'm concerned with is the millions of young people who've played with computers and made them do just what they wanted them to. Now they're going to think - if we present the right machine to them: 'Ah yes, here's the next stage.'

Yes. What tasks do you think young people want to do with computers that they can't do at the moment?

I think that they can do all the tasks with the appropriate machine, but to do all the tasks well is perhaps too expensive - and portability is so vital. I think that the reason that we cling to paper is that it's so portable.

Yes, and so fileable and so throw-awayable.

Yes, but it's the portability that's still lacking with computers. You want a printout of the data so that you can take it with you - not because you want the paper. If the whole machine always goes with you without it being cumbersome, then you can do away with the paper.

Even this small step needs a very great change in attitudes and methods of working. How much greater will be the problems of your new Periclean Athens?

Manifold. I don't want to think about it!

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