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'Hoist on my own petard'


My little nerdy power trip
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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So that's where I built my computer, and I got my computer to work. And I was very excited about it and very proud of myself. And there was a graduate student who was a chemist who wanted to use this mass spectrometer and needed to use my computer. And I was a young... I was a high school student, but quite taken with this female graduate student who wouldn't give me the time of day. And I felt she should be very impressed with this thing that I had built for her.

And she was just like, 'Oh, just tell me how to turn it on.' So that sort of annoyed me. So I could make up anything I wanted about how to turn it on, so there were all these racks of equipment, so I gave her a list of instructions which involved her sort of climbing up and flipping on that switch and bending over and flipping on that switch and so she had to come into my office and sort of perform this ritual that I knew that I'd just made up. It was sort of my revenge of her not paying any attention to me. I sort of wanted her to hang out so I had this instruction. And then to sort of get her attention I put into the code this random number generator which one out of ten times she'd go through this whole ritual and the computer would print out, 'Sorry, honey, I have a headache', and it would turn itself off. And then she would have to start over again. And she was really annoyed at me about that but she couldn't do anything about it. So that was my little power trip, my little nerdy power trip.

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: instruction, computer, mass spectrometer, attention, random number generator

Duration: 1 minute, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017