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'The government is a pretty lousy customer'

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Wars and disappointment in the government
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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And so I worked on it some more for a while, but it was very frustrating and it seemed like that, surely that would galvanise things and it caused lots of activity, but not lots of progress. And then we ended up having the second Gulf War, which was exactly the scenario that I had been using as an example, although it was Iraq instead of Iran. But it turns out my curveball was just exactly what I said could happen and what people knew would happen. And somehow all that work, and I... everything I had done failed to have any effect on that, and we went and fought what I think was a very unnecessary war, by fooling ourselves. And I think we genuinely did fool ourselves, thinking that he had chemical weapons. But you can go back and look at the errors in logic that we had, but at the time, I think everybody in the intelligence community really believed it because of the bad ways that we put together information, interpreted information.

So that all... you know, that felt like a personal failure to me. I felt bad about that, that I put an awful lot of effort into that and in the end it led to nothing helpful. So that got me kind of discouraged about working on that stuff. So I got less and less enthusiastic about the government work. And then the thing that really pushed it over is when the George W Bush administration came in. The tone of everything changed a bit. Because I had been doing this, like, since the Reagan administration, gone through Democrat and Republican. Generally the science advisors who were really trying to help were left out of the politics, as it should be, but when George W Bush came along, we started getting asked questions like, 'Have you donated any money to the other party?' 'Have you...' People who were like Baptist preachers started getting onto scientific committees and it just felt bad to me, so I pulled away from it.

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: George W Bush

Duration: 2 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017