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My life list: Northern Lights

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My life list: Flying a helicopter
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Well, actually flying a helicopter was another thing I had always wanted to do, but it's not so easy to learn how to fly a helicopter, but when Dean Kamen was making the little thing that he eventually called the Segway. He went... he wanted suggestions as to how he should market it, what he should do with it. So it was very secret then and I went up to Dean's lab and I said, 'I'll tell you what, Dean, I'll do free consulting on this if you give me a lesson, you teach me how to fly a helicopter.' And he made this deal with me, Bran and Nathan Myhrvold, which is actually not so easy to teach people how to fly a helicopter, because it's sort of like riding a unicycle except if you fall off, you die. So he taught the three of us to fly helicopters in exchange for a bunch of advice we gave him about the Segway which he didn't take. Our advice to him was to license the technology and let other people figure out what products to make out of it, but he decided to do it himself. But the great thing was that we all got to learn to fly helicopters together and it's a harrowing experience to be in a helicopter with somebody learning to fly, because you're just always right on the edge of flipping over and it's done with two sticks. So Dean would always grab control just before we crashed, and that happened over and over again. And I wasn't particularly good at it. But then at some point what happens is that you click in and it works. It's like riding a bicycle, and you feel like you're doing nothing. So that was another thing that I got to check off, was helicopter flying.

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: Dean Kamen

Duration: 2 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017