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Richard Feynman and Thinking Machines

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Meeting Freeman Dyson
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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You know, one of the most interesting people I met was your father, Freeman, and I remember Freeman. I actually met Freeman at the same conference I met Richard Feynman at. That was a conference that Ed Fredkin had about digital physics. And I gave a talk about the idea that the underlying physics might be a cellular automaton, and it wasn't unique for that conference, that was sort of what the conference was about, but it was a way that it might happen and a way that gravity might emerge as an emergent phenomenon from the cells of space. And Freeman Dyson himself came up afterwards and said something very nice to me about my talk, and I was just blown away. I was so shy I never would have talked to him, but he came up and explicitly said something nice to me. And then the next speaker got up and he had a completely incomprehensible talk, but he enunciated everything very clearly, and then I noticed Freeman went up to him afterwards and said, 'You spoke so clearly.' And then I thought, 'Oh, what did he say to me?' And I couldn't remember what he had said to me. But then I was still too shy to talk to Freeman. But I had... I had with me a paper that Bill Gosper had given me on something called 'Q factorials'. And so at some point on the... we took a bus ride someplace and I sat down next to Freeman, but I was too shy to actually start a conversation with him, so I took out my paper and I opened up and I started to read it, and Freeman sort of looked over my shoulder and he said, 'Are those Q factorials?' And I said, 'Why, yes.' That was how I started talking with Freeman. He was quite wonderful.

And then, that was also when Dick Feynman came up and talked to me about my paper and that's when Dick and I started becoming friends. And so that was just... actually it was an amazing conference all around in terms of the people that showed up to it, but that was the thing about MIT, is you could run into people like that. And both of those are people that I've... you know, have really made a lot of difference to my life.

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: Freeman Dyson, Richard Feynman

Duration: 2 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017