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Working with the intelligence agencies

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Benefits of sharing the men's room with the CIA
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Applied Minds was... when I left Disney, I really didn't know much what I wanted to do and I left with Bran Ferren. And so we did all kinds of things. One of the things we did was this kind of commercial thing. I mostly did that. Bran tended to do more kind of vision projects, where he'd make a prototype of something that was sort of... maybe it wasn't really engineered to really work, but it looked like it worked, so that people could be inspired by what would happen if it did. It was kind of a demonstration of what was possible. So we did a mix of different kinds of things. We did a lot of work with the... we did a lot of work with the government, not by intent, but also because the commercial work would get finished, whereas the government work was infinite, and so it just kept accumulating.

But I ended up having... getting a bit disillusioned about that for a couple of reasons. I have an interesting history with that. I mean, I still do work with the government. I try to help, but I got discouraged at how much good I was doing. So I guess I started doing government work very early when I was doing supercomputing. Actually, the AI lab, the Logo lab was on the same floor the CIA was on. But the CIA was secret. They didn't acknowledge they had... they had an unacknowledged office there, but people would always wonder in looking for the CIA, to our office. And they would say, 'Excuse me, where's room 301?' And I would say to them, 'The blue moon jumps over the purple sky.' And they would always look a little worried, like they didn't know the code words. And eventually, I'd say, 'Oh, if you want the CIA, it's across the hall.'

But the CIA... it was funny, I had a little thing going with them, because I was curious about them and I picked locks, so I would go in at night and I would pick the lock, but all the papers and everything would be put into the safe, so all the desks would be empty and so on. But they knew I would do this. Occasionally I would leave them a little note or something like that, but I got curious of what they were doing, because their phone system came through the phone closet as ours, I was curious if they had a way of seeing if you were bugging their phone, so I clipped, like, a little resistive load to their phone, and sure enough, like in ten minutes, a group... some people came over from the CIA into the phone closet and looked at it and took off my clip thing and looked at me and said, 'Damn kid.'

So that was interesting. So we had a little thing going, and they would... we'd share the men's room with them. And they actually carried guns, which I'm not sure why that made any sense, but they did. They had holsters with guns, or some of them did. And I remember once, this was during the Cold War, I got invited to a conference in the Soviet Union and this was a time when the Soviet Union was being pretty nasty and I wasn't sure if I wanted to go there and I thought one of these CIA guys would have an interesting perspective on it. And so I was in the men's room and he was at the next urinal, and I said, 'So, do you know...' I didn't know the guy's name, but I knew he came out of the CIA office, I said, 'You know, I have this problem you might have an interesting perspective on, which is I've been invited to this conference in the Soviet Union and I'm trying to decide whether to go or not.' And so the guy zips up his fly and goes over to wash his hands, and he says, 'Well – he says – actually two other people in your lab have also been invited to the same conference and they've decided to go, so it really probably doesn't matter whether you do or not.'

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: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

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: CIA, government, Bran Ferren, Applied Minds, Soviet Union, phone tap

Duration: 4 minutes, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017