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The Clock of the Long Now
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Sometime in the 1990s, I started noticing that the year 2000 was kind of a mental barrier for people. It was hard for them to think past it. And I realised that when I had been a kid growing up in the 1960s, people thought about the year 2000 and, you know, 2001 Space Odyssey, and we really imagined it as a real time we'd get to see. But here it was in the middle of the '90s and people were still not thinking past the year 2000. So it was as if the future had been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life. And then I heard this story from Stewart Brand that he had heard from Gregory Bateson about New College Oxford, which may be apocryphal, but it's the story about replacing the beams with the trees that had been planted long ago to replace the beams. And when I heard that story, I was putting it together with... I was making these things that were about being faster and faster and everything quicker and quicker and I was worrying about going from nanoseconds to femtoseconds, and here were people that were thinking in terms of centuries. And I realised that this short-term thinking was kind of taking something away from us. And I started thinking about what I could do that was kind of the opposite of that, a counterpoint to that. And so I started just thinking about, just as a project for myself, the idea of building a very slow clock that would last for 10,000 years. And 10,000 years being a kind of nice number, because our history is kind of 10,000 years old, so we ought to have a future that's as big as our history. And so I started thinking about this, and noticed that when I would tell my friends about it, they would get very interested and it would always lead to a good conversation. And I got more and more serious about it, so when I had that summer between Thinking Machines and Disney, I really started seriously thinking about doing this, and putting it... really building it. And started writing down my thoughts for the first time about it.

And Stewart Brand said, 'You know, you're going to have to... if you're going to do this, you're going to need some help. We're going to have to make a foundation.' So Stewart founded the Long Now Foundation, with me as co-founder. And we started seriously building the foundation, and I started seriously building the clock, but I also asked Stewart... I said, 'You know, Stewart, the clock is like one half of the story, but it's about, sort of, Newtonian time that's reversible, it's steady, it's predictable. But there's another thing about time, time that evolves and changes and we need to think about that kind of time, too.' And Stewart said immediately, 'A library.' So Stewart thought more about the library, I thought more about the clock, and that became the basis of the Foundation. And early on, Stewart knew somebody that he had known since he was a kid, name Alexander Rose, who we hired to become the director of the Clock Project. And so I was working at Disney, where I could try things out, and my friend Jacqui Safra offered to pay for the first prototype, and so we started designing that while I was at Disney. And that's the clock that's now in the London Science Museum. And it was a digital clock and started thinking really about what it meant to be a clock. And I think the most interesting design problem was the power, because on one hand, it wasn't so hard to make a clock that could power itself, just because the temperature changes from day to night, but in some sense, I didn't really want the clock to power itself without people. I wanted people to wind it. But I also wanted it to keep going without people, and the way I finally resolved that is I realised the clock could keep ticking and know what time it was, but it didn't have to tell people what time it was until you wound it. So that was, kind of, for me, a big breakthrough in the design of it. So that's the way the clock works: it keeps time, but it doesn't tell you the time until you wind it and then you see it move forward until it reaches now.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: London Science Museum, Alexander Rose, Stewart Brand

Duration: 4 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017