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Falling in love with a spy


Strategic Defense Initiative aka 'Star Wars'
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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One of the interesting things about making supercomputers is it was during the Cold War, still, it was like the end of the Cold War. And supercomputers were considered very special, secret technology. And in fact, my first patents that I filed on them, I got a notice back that they had been declared secret and that I wasn't allowed to look at them. So it was considered a very hot technology. Eventually I got them undeclared secret, but it was a strange experience with that. And in fact, that was just before the Reagan administration, and one of the meetings that Marvin [Minsky] brought me to was a meeting about how we should do a space programme by a bunch of people who were sort of disgusted with NASA. So it was like science fiction writers like Larry Niven and some people like the head of the Air Force, by the name of [James] Abrahamson, and Edward Teller was there. And they all decided that they were going to make another space programme, and that the excuse for the space programme was going to be that they were going to build a missile shield that would shoot down ballistic missiles, and it was really just an excuse for building a different space programme that wasn't NASA. And I thought this was just a completely crazy idea, because obviously it wouldn't work. And I pointed out that it obviously wouldn't work, and they were, like, 'No, no, it doesn't have to work, it just... it will work to get us a space programme.' And I thought it was silly, but their whole scheme depended on getting this movie star named Ronald Reagan elected president, which I just thought was such a bizarre idea that I went away from this meeting thinking this is just nuts.

But indeed, Ronald Reagan did get elected president. He started what came to be called the 'Star Wars' program, and a big central tenet of it, which he actually announced in the state of the union was that we were going to have supercomputers and our lead in supercomputers was a big deal. And the Soviets believed him. So all of a sudden, supercomputers became the hot topic, and this was what I was building. And so I was building computers that were way faster than the Cray's, so they were declared strategic technology and we weren't allowed to export them, and the Soviets, it turns out, started a programme to copy our computer. I didn't know about this until much later, but what I did know is I started getting strange things happening.

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: Ronald Reagan

Duration: 3 minutes

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017