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The Clock of the Long Now


A microprocessor in every doorknob
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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There was this period when I was designing chips, and I sort of knew microprocessors were going to be cheap, but most people were still thinking of computers as sort of big things that filled up rooms. But I could tell by the investment that was going into semiconductor technology, how many microprocessors were going to get made, and I could sort of plot the graph. And so one of the first public talks I ever gave was a talk at the National Computer Conference, and it was held in New York at the New York Hilton. And I gave this talk where I showed the number of microprocessors going up exponentially. And I said, 'In a few years, we're going to have more computers than we have people.' And the whole audience laughed. That was a ridiculous idea. They thought I was joking. I was like, 'No, this is really going to happen.' And then one of the questioners in the audience says, 'Well, what are you going to do with all these microprocessors? I mean, it's not like you need a microprocessor in every doorknob.' And I didn't have an answer for it, except that when I went back to that hotel five years, there was in fact a microprocessor in every doorknob.

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: future, microprocessor, computers, conference, Hilton

Duration: 1 minute, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017