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In search of Kanganaman, the lost village

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My trip to Papua New Guinea
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Just recently, about a year ago, I had the most remarkable trip. I thought that that world was gone, that disconnected world. But I got to go to Papua New Guinea. And up the Sepik River and to the Trobriand Islands and I had a friend, Courtney Ross, who was sailing around the world. And she was... She was going to go up the Sepik and like ask to join that part of it. And I got to see there's still parts of the world where it's like Africa had been. That we would go to villages that no white person had visited the village in living memory. And I would meet children who would want to touch my hair, my... You know, have the same interaction that I remembered from Africa. And of course we'd go into the village and always first it would be interacting with the children, the adults would stay back.

And I would have a trick which is I would... I had my iPhone and of course there was no cell coverage but I'd turn on my iPhone in selfie mode and all the children would gather around and I would take a selfie. And they would be amazed and horrified and excited at seeing themselves on the phone. And then I'd make friends with the children and then the adults would come and look at what was happening.

And so, and then we would usually bring a soccer ball with us, we'd give a soccer ball to the children as a sort of gift of arriving at the village. And that was always a successful gift, the children would start playing with the soccer ball and we'd get off to a good start. Which was a good thing because as it turns out there was a group that had gone in a couple of weeks before us, up the Sepik, and done kind of what we did of exploring villages and they went into the wrong village with the wrong guides and got killed with bows and arrows. So it was actually kind of dangerous, but, if you didn't sort of hit it off well with people. Each of the villages spoke a different language because the cultures were very isolated, had been cannibals until recently. And so, you know, the common language that they speak is this sort of pidgin Dutch English language. It's the only thing they can speak to each other.

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: Papua New Guinea, Africa, Sepik River, Courtney Ross

Duration: 2 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017