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Seeing the future emerging from dreams

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The 10,000-year clock
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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While I was at the vineyard getting to know my kids, the other thing I got to do was think about some things that had been in the back of my mind for a long time. In particular, I had had this idea about the future shrinking, and I had had this idea about building a clock that lasted for 10,000 years. And that was the first moment that I really got to sort of sit and think about it and write it down. So I wrote an essay. Wired magazine was doing its tenth anniversary or something like that, and they asked me to write an essay for them. And so I wrote down, for the first time, the idea of the clock sort of sitting in the tower there overlooking the vineyard. And that's really when I committed to doing that project. And so one of the great things about Disney is it let me begin to build the prototype, so the pieces of the clock, which I never would have had time to do if I was still running Thinking Machines. So that actually ended up being a great blessing, too, because they were very supportive of my using the machine shops and things like that to play with the ideas of the clock. So that became the beginning of my actually working on the clock. I mean, I had thought about the idea before I had talked about it, but that was the point where I really started working on it.

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: Wired, Thinking Machines

Duration: 1 minute, 33 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017