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No future for Thinking Machines

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Thinking Machines – a magnet for great people
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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And maybe I might have become a physicist had I not been so interested in other things, but I was much more interested in the biological side of things and in thinking. So there was a lot to compete with that. So I studied... I studied math. Marvin [Minsky] encouraged me to do that, to study mathematics. Then I could kind of do anything. But my real education was really at Thinking Machines, because once we built these computers, we had the fastest computers around and the most interesting people, like Eric Lander would come to use my computer. And so it turns out that if you had just gotten the people that had come to use those computers, and you had invested in everything they had done, you would have invested in the people that... I mean, for instance, there was this kid at Stanford that, you know, used the Stanford Connection Machine to... which is all based on this kind of MapReduce paradigm, a guy by the name of Sergey Brin, who used it to make a search engine. And that turned into Google.

And there were... over and over again, I meet people who used the connection machine and then went on to do great things, so it was a kind of a magnet for attracting amazing people like Sydney... yes.  And so that, for me, being around those people, was really an even greater education than MIT was for me, because it was so interdisciplinary. There were people who would be working on economic models and people who would be working on astrophysics. And, like, Piet Hut would use it to study colliding galaxies or Schlumberger would use it to look for oil in the ground, or American Express used it for the first data-mining, of like looking at the patterns of how people charge credit cards and looking for patterns of fraud or marketing. All that stuff that’s just become so much of a part of our lives. The first people that were doing it were doing it with those machines, because they were the first ones that were powerful enough to do it. So it turned out to be the perfect way to get an education. And then later, in a sense, when I went to Disney, I got a different kind of education. Disney turned out to be a wonderful education in the arts or the applied arts of storytelling and, you know, moviemaking and all that stuff.

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: Thinking Machines, Marvin Minsky, Sergey Brin, Eric Lander, Piet Hut

Duration: 3 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017