Why Amazon’s Founder Is Funding The Slowest Computer On Earth

Tech & Science

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is funding efforts to create a clock that will keep time for 10,000 years.

Danny Hillis is the inventor and engineer behind efforts to construct the Long Now Clock. In 1995, Hillis explained that though he would not be present in the future, he felt a philosophical kinship with future generations. He expressed his wish to take advantage of ‘a time of important change’ by contributing to a project that would outlive him.

Hillis and biologist Stewart Brand launched a nonprofit, the Long Now Foundation, to promote the clock’s construction.

Thanks to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the clock has gone from concept to reality-in-progress.

The Long Now Clock will tick once a year. The ‘century’ hand will move to a new position over the course of a century. This movement will be so subtle that the hand will not appear to make visible progress during a human lifetime.

A cuckoo will emerge every millennium.

Brian Eno contributed both the clock’s name and its chime sequence, which will create a different melody every day for 10,000 years. The name is meant to evoke a period of time beyond the months and years of individual human lives – it invokes the ‘long now’ of humanity’s lifespan.

Commemoration of celestial events or yearly anniversaries will be up to future generations. Future innovators will be able to tinker with the technology guided by elements of the Clock’s construction.

The Clock’s counterweights are stone disks weighing a hefty 10,000 pounds. Pairs or trios of visitors to the clock will be able to manually wind the clock with the help of a rotating mechanism used to lift the stones.

Twenty 8-foot Geneva wheels, weighing over 1,000 pounds each, comprise the infinitely sluggish ‘computer’ that allows the clock to chime without repetition. Slots and pins perform the digital mathematics required to produce each chime sequence. The Long Now Foundation affectionately calls the Clock ‘the slowest computer in the world’.

A 6-foot-tall pendulum with titanium weights will complete an arc every 10 seconds.

Metals will fuse if they remain in contact over hundreds or thousands of years. To avoid hazardous corrosion, the Clock’s moving pieces are made of ceramics and stone.

The Clock is capped in sapphire glass exposed to natural light. Outside of this cap is a device to record and use thermal differences to power the Clock’s mechanisms. Every noon, the Clock will self-regulate. A prism will heat up the device; next, the signal will be transferred to the internal operating mechanisms of the Clock.

Only the sapphire cap will be externally visible from the peak of the mountain.

The Clock will display the correct interval only when prompted by a visitor in order to save power. A hand-wound wheel will allow a visitor to display the day and the time.

The Clock is designed for a 10,000-year lifespan even if it receives no visitors. The chimes require winding from a human visitor unless ideal conditions permit the sun to wind the chimes remotely.

A limestone mountain in Texas was carefully selected to house the Clock. The climate is dry and desert-like. Temperature varies little in the mountain, protecting the Clock from seasonal hazards.

Visitors will be required to undertake an extensive drive and a day-long hike to reach the Clock. The Long Now website urges members of its organization to check the ‘Visit the Clock’ box when they join in order to secure priority viewing when the endeavor is complete.

The landscape is readied; manufacturers are equipped to face corrosion and long-term efficacy. But the central question remains: what could possibly justify a 10,000 year timekeeper?

The Clock is more symbol than substance. As the Long Now website explains, ten thousand years represents the length of human civilization thus far. The Clock solidifies in ceramics the idea that the life cycle of humanity is only halfway. This anticipation of another 10 millennia of life is ‘an implicit statement of optimism’, according to Clock supporters.

The Clock founder and his followers hope the Clock will inspire future generations to consider similarly far-reaching innovations. The endeavor reminds inventors and citizens that what they create has the potential to be viewed, or even completed, by future incarnations of humanity. ‘If a Clock can keep going for ten millennia, shouldn’t we make sure our civilization does as well?’ asks the Long Now Foundation. In considering the implications for future generations, the collective quotes virologist Jonas Salk: ‘Are we being good ancestors?’

At a base level, the engineering tasks posed by a multi-generational clock are both formidable and enticing. As the foundation explains, any artifact can stand the test of time if adequately preserved – for proof, consider archaeological samples of papyrus or ancient clothing.

The Clock is still in the early stages of production. The Long Now Foundation encourages emails to discuss the Clock and the possible mechanisms for celebrating yearly anniversaries.

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