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Life in Calcutta, India

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My first lesson in unfair trade
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Then we went back to Louisiana and I remember being... When we went back, of course I had all these stories of Africa. And most of the kids in my school had never even been across the lake to New Orleans. And I had little carved things from Africa and they were all interested. And there was a poor kid who was friends of mine who wanted to trade something, he really wanted something from Africa. And I had a little carved wooden elephant with little ivory tusks. And so we agreed to trade something, and he got his treasure, and his treasure was a broken Etcher Sketch.

He had like the criss-cross piece inside the Etch A Sketch. Remember, Etch A Sketch was this thing that you turned with knobs that you could draw on a screen. And he didn't have the Etch A Sketch, it was broken, but he had saved from it a little part that draw, that criss-crossed. And so he brought that in. And I remember thinking: this isn't really a fair trade because this little broken piece of Etch A Sketch is not as valuable as this elephant from Africa. But also realising, well yes, it is... It's also not fair the other way because it's his most valuable possession and it's not really my most valuable possession. So we traded it, but I remember thinking about it wasn't fair but not being quite sure which way it wasn't fair. But he clearly wanted to make the trade. And so that began a series of moves.

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: Africa, treasure, Etch A Sketch, trade, possession

Duration: 2 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017