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'Your job is just to be human'

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Possessing things is not a natural state for humans
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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With Africa and with Papua New Guinea which is the sense money wasn't really important to them. Things weren't really important. And money was sort of a novelty. And we literally had an infinite amount of money compared to, you know, what we could spend on anything. So we had so much money compared to what anybody had ever had around there. They didn't even really quite know what to do with money. But they sort of liked the interaction more as a novelty of in Africa.

So I remember once in Africa, for instance, at some point they built these little bird cages out of pith from bamboo or something like that, from cane I guess. And we thought those were really nice and we bought them. We gave them a few coins for them. And then the word got out that we liked things made out of these pith things and so they showed up with more elaborate ones, and we bought those. And then they would show up with like bigger and more elaborate ones. And after a while it was sort of sad because they'd made these huge giant things just for us, we didn't feel like we couldn't not buy them. But we started accumulating way more of them than we wanted. But they basically cost nothing and people had gone to so much trouble to make them that we had to buy. We had to buy all of these things that they would bring us. And they would bring us things like... They would bring us elephant tusks which, you know, now it's sort of horrifying, the idea of carrying ivory out, but in those days it was just like one of the many things. You know, they would bring stuff and we were the only market for them so we sort of felt obligated to buy anything they showed up with.

And we actually took those back, which was probably in retrospect illegal even then but we didn't think about stuff like that, so... I remember very crudely carved elephant tusks. Yes. And it was like that in Papua New Guinea. Really, the amount of money you had was so much compared to what they had that it always felt bad to bargain but it was always insulting not to bargain. So it was a very funny relationship with money. But it makes you realise too how arbitrary money was because they clearly didn't use much money internally. And it made me realise that the whole idea of buying things and possessing things is kind of a modern invention that came with agriculture. It wasn't a natural state for humans.

But it was more the natural state is more like a family. And a village is more like a family, when somebody needs something and somebody has something, of course you share it. And that's what these villages of a few hundred people were. They're much more like a family. When people own something they own something in the way that you own something within a family. You know, you own it because you use it and it's yours. But if somebody else needs it, of course, they have access to 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: Papua New Guinea, Africa

Duration: 3 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017