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Living in Marvin Minsky's basement

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How I met Marvin Minsky
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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But while that was all fun, it was a bit of a distraction because what I was really trying to do was meet Marvin Minsky. And every time I would go by his laboratory... I now had a key, but every time I would go by his office he wasn't there. And I started asking where Marvin Minsky was, and they said, 'Oh, he comes in at night and he works down in the basement on this computer that he's building.'

So I used my key and I came in at night and I went down, and sure enough there was Marvin sitting there working with some of his students. And... but I was too awed by Marvin to actually go up and talk to him. So I just hung around and I looked at the diagrams of the computer that he was building, trying to see if I could come up with something clever to say to him. And I noticed that there was actually a bug, there was a design error. And so I thought, 'Oh, great, this is my entry.' So I went up to Marvin and I said, 'Excuse me, but I think there's a mistake here.' And I'm pointing out to him, he says, 'Yes, fix it.' So I fixed it on the diagram, I say, 'It needs to be rewired.' He says, 'Well, rewire the computer', you know? And so I changed the design of the computer and I... And then I found another one and then after a while I stopped asking him. I would just start changing the diagrams and, you know, redesigning this computer and rewiring it. And after a while Marvin just assumed that I worked for him.

And so that's how I met Marvin Minksy.

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: Marvin Minsky

Duration: 1 minute, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017