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The 'Siliwood' days: Silicon Valley and Hollywood

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Special treatment at Disney
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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One of the wonderful things about Disney is they had no idea who I was, but they treated me kind of like a movie star.

[Q] It's always safer to.

So it was just... yes. And partly because Michael Ovitz treated me that way and they followed the lead of Michael Ovitz. So... for instance, one of the early... one of my first days that I was there I wanted to try a ride that I always sort of imagined that involved hanging from a parachute harness. And so I said to the person that had been assigned to help me, 'Can you get me a parachute harness?' And she said, 'What size?' And I sort of knew, okay, this is not a place where they're questioning you. So that was... I was treated really very well. I was assigned fantastic people. The assistant that I was assigned, somebody who had worked for Michael Eisner, and she was actually an Olympic basketball player, and she was incredibly overqualified for the job, and was actually kind of bored with the job a little bit, but she hired... she said, 'You need another assistant.' I'm like, 'Okay', and she brought somebody else from Michael Eisner's office, who was Alice Hargrove. And then, after having done that, she said, 'Oh, by the way, I'm leaving because I've been offered to be a vice president at Nike.' So she went off and did that and left me with Alice, who was just fantastic, and that's been a very important collaboration, really, not just from Disney. I mean, Alice came with me from Disney and then came with me to Applied Minds and then came with me to Applied Invention. And she's so much of a partner in everything that I've managed to accomplish. I don't know how I could possibly operate without her. So that's been a fantastic collaboration. But I remember one of the first things when Alice came aboard. Because at Disney, you sort of had permission to do anything. I saw the Goodyear Blimp flying over. I was like, 'Oh, I'd like a ride on that.' And then I was like, Alice, can you get me a ride on the Goodyear Blimp? And she came back and she said, 'Would you like to fly it? So I don't know how she did it, but she... So I went down and they had the Goodyear Blimp waiting for me, and I got to fly the Goodyear Blimp with a co-pilot sitting there. And it was just like the people from Disney would like to check out the Goodyear Blimp, you know. So it was tremendous permission to do everything, so I had a lot of fun with that.

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: Michael Ovitz, Alice Hargrove

Duration: 3 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017