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Marvin Minsky's warmth and kindness

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The great people surrounding Marvin Minsky
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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It was also wonderful because he was so generous. I didn't understand how extraordinary this was until I looked back on it, but he would introduce me to amazing people. So, you know, because of him I had Claude Shannon on my thesis committee or he got, you know, he introduced me to people like Barney Oliver or the... Really he would take me, whenever he went to a conference like NASA had a huge... They brought in a bunch of VIPs to decide what the future of NASA was going to be after the space shuttle.

And these amazing people showed up like Robert Heinlein and mostly people Marvin's age. [John] Tukey, that's where I met Tukey for example, was at that conference. The guy that invented the Fourier transform and a lot of statistics. And became friends with him. I met amazing people there. But Marvin brought me, as an undergraduate probably then, and I got to participate in this amazing conference. I actually got to... Since Heinlein was why I'd gone to MIT, I got to tell Heinlein the story of, you know, reading Have Space Suit - Will Travel, that's why I went to MIT. And Heinlein was a very kind of grumpy guy and he said, 'I'm not responsible for your life, kid'. I was sort of disappointed but his wife came up to me afterwards and was very nice to me and said, 'Don't worry, he's just like that'. And she was very nice to me. But, you know, that I could go to a conference like that was extraordinary.

So he made sure that I met these amazing people like Arthur Clark for example would come to his house, science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov and he would always be sure that I knew they were coming and introduce me to them. Ted Sturgeon was another one of my favourites. He loved science fiction writers. And he really, you know, was... Set it up so that they met his students. Really was pretty extraordinary, I think, to get a chance to know those people.

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, John Tukey, Robert A Heinlein

Duration: 2 minutes, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017