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Francis Crick and consciousness

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My interest in emergent phenomena
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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The sad thing, I think, about Thinking Machines was that I never really got to use the machines that much, because I'd built this thing because I wanted to use it, but I ended up running a computer company instead... instead of using the machine myself. So I put aside some time and I started to... and the thing that I got really interested in was simulating evolution and trying to understand the process of evolution. And I had a couple of people working for me on that, including Carl Simms, who made a really neat thing that involved walking machines. We started learning about evolution, and I was very excited about that area, and I think I really got the chance to do that, kind of, cut off, because I got so involved in the business stuff. And so I still would love to go back to that, because I think that's an area that has not actually made much progress since then, and I think it has huge potential. So I wish I had done that.

I also... one of the things is when we discovered the sort of general effect, which is when you had lots and lots of something, you would get kind of emergent phenomena like... well, like fluids come out of particles. And so I got more and more interested in this general idea of how emergent phenomena happen. How do simple rules cause automatically the construction of some other system of rules on top them? So that you can forget about the simple rules and you think about the system that emerged from the simple rules. And so if you look at us, for instance, we have... Schrodinger's equation is pretty simple, and out of that comes atoms, and out of the interaction of atoms come molecules and out of the interaction of molecules comes biochemistry, and somehow you get... you know, so molecules are emergent phenomena from Schrodinger's equation, and life is an emergent phenomenon of molecules, and neural systems are an emergent phenomenon of life and thinking is an emergent phenomenon from neural systems. And so we're sort of stacked up, these emergences on top of emergences on top of emergences. And how that happens, I think, is the most interesting thing. And in some sense, what's interesting about us is higher levels of the stack. And maybe there's higher levels up on top of that. I mean, as we interact, we're the particles, something emerges on top of us, which would be even more interesting. And I think we sometimes get a glimpse of that, I think. I'm not a mystic, but I do believe that there is something. You know, I believe that there's something more than us. And so that, to me, is something I started noticing then, and I've stayed with that as being one of the fundamental things that I'm interested in. How does that happen? How can you make it happen? I still think it's not very well understood. So for me that's one of the most fundamental, intellectually interesting puzzles of our time.

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: evolution, emergent phenomena, life, Schrodinger’s equation, molecules, neural systems

Duration: 3 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017