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'What's your biggest new idea?'


My work at Disney
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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It was a wonderful way of spending time with my children. And we home-schooled our children, so I did get to spend a lot of time with them in that, and the Disney job let me do it. And it was also, for me, the first time I'd ever had a job, which was kind of a unique experience. I remember when I got my first paycheque from Disney. I had benefits, like all the insurance payments they had made for me and so on. And for the first time, I realised why benefits are called benefits. It's like they were giving me all this stuff, whereas always before benefits was stuff I had to pay, right? So it was a completely different perspective on things, in the sense that the company was going to be fine whatever I did. It was doing well. And so I didn't have that sense of responsibility and mostly they didn't listen to what I told them to do, but occasionally they did, and they were happy with the things that they did listen to. I mean, I tried to get them to... I mean, for instance, this was when the Internet was just starting to happen, and there was an executive there that I really liked a lot named Gerry Laybourne and Gerry and I were interested in doing something for children, making a new television brand for children. And we went and we interviewed focus groups, and we realised this amazing thing, which was that for everybody at that time, they didn't really know what the Internet was but they thought it was really important and they thought it was called Yahoo. So we realised Yahoo was this amazing brand that meant the Internet. And so we went back and we tried to get Disney to buy Yahoo. But it would cost $100 million, right, so Disney was like, 'Why would we buy a strange company that has a silly name for $100 million?' So that was the kind of thing they wouldn't do. So they sort of knew this technology thing was important, but they didn't really know why it was important and they didn't have very good intuitions about it, but they treated me very well.

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: Christopher Sykes George Dyson

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: Disney, benefits, television, internet, Yahoo, technology

Duration: 2 minutes, 26 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017