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Possessing things is not a natural state for humans

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Finding the village, the pots and the lost world
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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We got a rumour of where the village was that had the pots. And in the meantime on the boat we had a library of old anthropological books and I found a book that said that the village that had the pots had changed its name. So we had a new name for it. And then we found an old map that had the new name. But the river was no longer where the map showed.

So we had a general location by this sort of puzzle thing. So we took the helicopter and we started trying to land. And the first village we went to was totally flooded. So no way to land a helicopter. We landed at another village, turned out to be the wrong village. But our friend who spoke many languages, he was a linguist too, so he was able to speak with the people in the village and find directions to where this other village was. And so we went around with the helicopter trying to find it, landing in random villages. And of course it was a big deal every time we landed and a lot of fun.

But by the time we finally got to the right village it was almost dark and we were almost out of fuel. And so we landed in the right village but they didn't have the pots. They had some little ones which they sold to us. But we really... They had some big pots, they knew some people... They had some themselves they didn't want to sell, that they used, but they knew some people that lived outside the village that maybe had some extras. So they sent runners to people who might be willing to sell their pots. And so we waited and it started getting to be evening and the helicopter pilot was telling me, 'We have to get out of here after dark, you know, we can't fly after dark, we have to...' Because it really was pretty hairy flying the helicopters. And so just as we start up the helicopters we have to get out of there and Courtney's like, 'Well, we can wait a few more minutes, we can...' But finally the helicopter pilot's like, 'No, we have to start.' So we started the engines and just as we started the engines these three women come running with these pots. Which we immediately bought from them at whatever price they asked which was almost nothing, of course. And took them. And I rode back like holding the pot in the... We didn't have time to pack them up or anything.

And I've still got that pot downstairs. So we found the village, we found the pots. But most importantly, I found a part of the world that was still like Africa, and it reminded me that, you know, the memory I had of how people were with each other was real. And it still exists and it's still, I think, the natural way people are. So it was wonderful to see that still exist. I'd love to go back.

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: Papua New Guinea

Duration: 3 minutes, 31 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017