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Why I started making parallel computers


Fun times with Marvin Minsky
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Every fourth of July we celebrated by making an explosion. And it was my job to make an explosion out of things lying around the house. Which actually is not so hard in Marvin's house because there were all kinds of interesting things lying around. So I would for instance be able to use a jar of magnesium powder, some ammonium tri-iodide or... It was very easy to make explosions. But one year I decided to get creative and make an explosion by filling a giant gas bag with hydrogen and oxygen which I would create by electrolysis.

And I was talking with Marvin and he was like, 'How are you going to make the explosion?' I was, like, explained what I was doing. I was saying, 'It's bubbling up right now.' He was like, 'How are you keeping the oxygen and the hydrogen separate?' And I was like, 'Well, I'm not keeping them separate, I'm just going to ignite them with a spark.' And he said, 'Well, they're going to self-ignite.' And I said, 'No, no, no, I think they need a spark to ignite.' And he said, 'Well, I actually think that...' And just as he was saying that there was a huge bang. I said, I guess you're right, Marvin.

Whenever Marvin got an exciting consulting gig like to work for Schlumberger and go out on an oil rig he would bring me along. So he would always make sure that they hired me too. And so we had all kinds of adventures together. Sailing out in the Gulf of Mexico, getting picked up by cranes and lifted up onto oil rigs. So we had a huge amount of fun together. And did right up to the end of his life. Actually, one of the blessings of moving back to Cambridge was I got to spend that last year or so with Marvin. And he was himself right up to the end, so it was really wonderful to get to spend the time with him.

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: Marvin Minsky

Duration: 2 minutes, 16 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017