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Not feeling appreciated at Disney


Leaving Disney and starting Applied Minds
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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I ended up staying at Disney for almost five years, which was a surprise. It was just fun. I intended to just be there as kind of a vacation, but it was wonderful people to work with, I got to work on the clock, I got to meet all kinds of interesting characters and funny people like Robin Williams and really interesting, smart, people of all sorts. And got to travel all over the place, and got a paycheque. Didn't have to worry about running a company. So it was a great vacation, but after a while I realised that it... I had been there a lot longer than I had expected to be, and probably I needed to stop taking a vacation and do something useful. So I said... I told Bran Ferren, who had brought me there, 'I'm going to quit and start a company to do things that are more important for the world.' And Bran said, 'Well, if you wait another six months, I'll come with you.' And so that's how we started Applied Minds.

And Disney was happy about it, I mean happy that we gave them notice and so on, and they actually rented us the space and we had a very good relationship, still, with Disney. But we went on to do things that we thought were more important and had more impact, because it was kind of discouraging, I would say, that the best ideas that we had in research and I had in particular, never got acted on. And just the sort of low-hanging fruit got acted on and Disney was happy with that, but ultimately that was frustrating for me. And I wanted to do something that made more difference. But it was a great thing to do with my kids when they were young, so it was a wonderful period of my life. And it was nice to go through a period of actually seeing what it was like to have a job. And it gave me a very different perspective on things, having a job, because I'd always kind of been the boss before. I didn't realise how much work everybody goes to manipulate the boss and spin things so that the boss thinks the boss is making a decision, when actually you've set things up so that the boss can only do one thing, and I got to see it all from a different angle.

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, Applied Minds, leaving, company, work life

Duration: 2 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017