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'Hoist on my own petard'
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Years later when I was at MIT and knew how to program computers I got a call from the chemistry department. And they were still using this thing. But what had happened was I didn't really know how to make a random number generator, I just made it up. And so I had written it in a way that it finally got into a loop where it kept generating the same random number over and over again. And so every time they tried to turn it on it said, 'Sorry, honey, I have a headache', and it would turn itself off. And so I felt very guilty about this so I volunteered to go down to fix it. But of course I hadn't documented anything. I had no idea how this thing worked anymore. All I had to do was find the part where it did that and sort of skip over it.

But I didn't have any listings of the code, so what I would do is I would put a halt and I would put a halt instruction and start it up and see if I could get to the halt instruction before it got to that. So I would sort of by binary search find the place where it did this. But so it means that I had to over and over again start up this computer. But I didn't really remember how to start the computer and all that was left was this set of instructions that I had left for this graduate student which everybody had been following since then. And I knew that most of them were just silliness, causing her to jump through hoops. But I didn't remember which parts were. So I was sorted of hoisted on my own petard. I had to over and over again go through this list, I didn't have time to figure out which parts of it were real. Over and over again turn the machine on and off until I found the instruction to fix.

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: glitch, instruction, mass spectrometer, loop, random number generator

Duration: 2 minutes

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017