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What I was doing on 9/11
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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And in fact, on 9/11, I was sitting in the director's office at the National Security Agency, meeting with the head of Analysis, talking about this problem and talking about how we couldn't get the information together. And while I was talking with Mo, the... somebody came in and brought here a little piece of paper. And she said, 'Oh, you know, an airplane just crashed into the World Trade Center.' But it was just the first one, so she's like, 'This is probably an accident.' She said, 'But you and I both know that if this turns out to be a terrorist act, we have information in this building that could have clued us into this, but we haven't put it together. And there'll be a congressional investigation and everybody will get called up and why didn't we put it together and...', you know, but this was all kind of hypothetical. And then somebody came in with the second piece of paper, and she sort of blanched and then she's, like, 'I have to go figure out what we do about this', and she gave us the code. There was special security code for turning on the television set and we watched the second bombing. And then they went and met with the director and decided to evacuate the building, because the Pentagon got bombed and so on. But that's what I was doing on 9/11.

And then I was stuck in Washington. And Bran had actually been down at the Pentagon that day, so I got together with Bran and we borrowed a car. You couldn't rent cars. We borrowed a car and we drove up to Bran's place in East Hamptons, so we drove through New York, so I was also in New York City on 9/11, too. And, you know, saw the... yes, it was... On the way, of course, all the traffic was jammed. You couldn't go through Manhattan, so at some point we stopped at a fire station to ask directions of how we could get around the city. And we walked in and everybody was crying, because their buddies had just... they had been in one of those building that had collapsed. And so that was a pretty scary moment. But it was also a moment where I felt a tremendous sense of personal failure and guilt, because I had seen the problem. We did have information that we could have put together that would have stopped that. I think everybody felt that sense of guilt. And yes, we had failed to solve the problem.

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: 09/11/2001

Duration: 3 minutes

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017