Tuesday, December 27, 2011

90: The Long Now

    Recently I was browsing in a used bookstore, and a book subtitled
"The Ideas Behind The World's Slowest Computer" caught my attention.
Why would somebody want to build the world's slowest computer?  The
main title of the book was the somewhat cryptic "The Clock of the Long
Now".  As I read the jacket, I noticed that some rather intriguing
and quirky people were involved, including supercomputing pioneer
Danny Hillis and pioneering rock musician Brian Eno.  So I decided it
might be worth a read.
    What does the term "Long Now" mean?  The basic idea is that when
thinking about time, we usually talk in terms of future events in the
next few years, or maybe just beyond our lifetime at most; this is
what Brian Eno calls the "Short Now".  Why aren't we thinking 1,000,
or even 10,000 years in advance?  Naturally our ability to predict or
influence such times is limited, but to the extent that we can plan
ahead, maybe we should be thinking about these magnitudes.  Hillis
offers the example of the oak beams at College Hall in Oxford:  when
the building was renovated recently, matching replacement wooden beams
were easily found, since the architects who built the place in 1386
had planted some more oak trees nearby just in case they would be
needed.  How do we know what other structures or aspects of our
civilization might survive 1,000- or 10,000- year time scales?
    That leads to the Clock of the Long Now.  The Clock is described
as a super-slow clock that ticks once a year, with a "century hand"
advancing every hundred years.  Hillis wants it to run for 10,000
years, a time chosen to match the estimated time since the beginning
of human technology.  The clock would serve as a record to future
generations, and help people think about the Long Now, as it provides
future viewers a connection to the distant past and the distant
future.  It will remain accurate due to phase-locking with the noon
Sun each day, and designed so that it is ultra-low-maintenance and
uses only Bronze Age technology, to maximize the chance that its
workings will be understood and the clock can be maintained regardless
of the fate of our civilization.  
    How can this project be done using Bronze-age technology?  It's
built using a set of mechanical digital computers, similar in concept
to the Tinkertoy-based computer built at MIT in the 1970s, or to
Charles Babbage's concepts from the 19th century.  Rather than using
electronic voltage levels to represent 1 and 0 as in modern computers,
mechanical levers in 'up' or 'down' positions indicate 0s and 1s.
Low-tech solar synchronization is provided by a precisely angled lens
that will concentrate sunlight precisely at noon to expand and trigger
a small metal switch.  For power, there is both human winding (mainly
to keep future generations engaaged with the clock) and a backup
system that uses temperature and pressure changes to self-wind during
periods of neglect.  A prototype of this clock has already been built,
and land purchased in a remote mountain area to hopefully install the
real version. 
    Sure, it's fascinating, but overall it does give a flavor of New
Age craziness.  After all, sounds like a nice metaphor, but a lot of
work for no concrete benefit, other than maybe artwork.  But there are
a few aspects of this Long Now project that actually make some
practical sense.  One is the construction of a Rosetta Disk.  This is
a large, solid disk with tiny etchings describing all known human
languages.  At the outer edge would be human-eye-readable descriptions
of what the disk is in a set of common languages, and the text would
gradually diminish in size; hopefully future generations would figure
out to look at it under magnification.  It's important to realize that
this is not an encoded digital representation, it's a plain etching,
so even if modern computer technology is lost it should be perfectly
readable.  And as long as some vestiges of some extant languages
remain, it should provide a key to help understand any language of our
era.  It's also important to keep in mind that most current forms of
digital storage, like computer memories, DVDs, etc., will decay even
within our lifetimes, so in case of some civilization-wide
catastrophe, such a low-tech record may be critical.
    So, while the world's slowest computer-clock may simply exist as a
monument to artistic craziness, generations later in our Long Now may
have a key to understand modern languages and artifacts.  And this
project may be a concrete benefit to our descendants in the
unimaginably distant future.
    And this has been your math mutation for today.

  • Google books search result for "The Clock of the Long Now"
  • Long Now Foundation web page
  • Long Now Foundation at Wikipedia
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