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A microprocessor in every doorknob


Radioactive skeleton in Marvin Minsky's closet
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Living at Marvin Minsky's house was a pretty strange thing, because he kept such interesting things there. And actually, after I lived there, I would go back and visit. And one time I just happened to be carrying a radiation detector with me, and as I walked down the stairs, the radiation detector went crazy. And so I was walking next to a closet, and I opened up the closet, and it was full of all these chemicals. And so I decided to figure out what was the radioactive chemical, so I would move a chemical over and walk and see which way the radiation was, and eventually I moved all of the chemicals out of the closet, but the radiation detector was still going off on the closet. I couldn't figure out what was going on. Then I noticed that the closet had kind of a secret compartment in the back of it, and I opened up the secret compartment, and there was a human skeleton. So I thought, wow. I'm not sure how I'm going to tell him about this. So I go up and Marvin and Gloria are up in the living room, and I say, 'I'm not sure how to say this, but there's literally a skeleton in your closet.' And they're like, 'What do you mean?' And I'm like, 'Oh, I found a secret compartment and there's a human skeleton behind it.' And Gloria says, 'Oh, that's where it got to! We've been looking for that for years.' And it was her medical skeleton from her medical school, and they'd hidden it back in this compartment. And I still didn't know what was radioactive, and I eventually found that there was a lens there that was something that Marvin had gotten surplus from an old spy camera or something like that they actually doped them with radioactive elements sometimes to increase the index of refraction. So it was dangerously radioactive, I got it out of the house.

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: Marvin Minsky

Duration: 2 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017