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My close encounter with an elephant


The culture of inventing
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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There was kind of a culture which I kind of learnt I would say from Marvin [Minsky]. And Marvin maybe learnt it from Claude Shannon. They both had it. They were always building things and inventing things and solving things in new crazy ways. But not necessarily important things but, you know, silly things like, you know, a new way of getting a drink out of a water fountain or a new way of turning on a light. And they were always building little gadgets. Marvin had a little machine shop in his basement and Claude Shannon was like working on a juggling machine or Claude Shannon had this machine that he had made out of relays that he called it Throwback One which it was a calculator. But it worked with Roman numerals. And you typed in Roman numerals and it gave you the displays in Roman... Built it out of relays.

So there was this sort of tradition of just building great things which I think I got from them. Claude was trying to make a robot juggling machine. You know, Marvin was always fiddling with his heating system, of innovative new ideas like he figured out a way of bypassing the interlock on the pilot light so that he didn't waste pilot light burning for the furnace all summer. But then winter came and I walked into his house and it was full of the smell of gas. Basically the furnace had come on, the pilot light hadn't been on. Marvin had bypassed the interlock. And the house was really about to explode. And I knew that actually Marvin had this... He had a piece of equipment with a neon light that would occasionally make a big spark. I knew if it made that spark the whole house would just blow up.

But he had all these wrenches in the living room, so I ran and got a wrench and shut off the gas supply and opened up all the windows, and I was sitting out on the front porch, having saved the house. Marvin came, said, 'Why are you out here in the cold? Why are all the windows open?' And I said, 'Because you bypassed the...' And he said, 'Oh, I guess that's why it worked that way.'

So he definitely, Marvin had a culture of building things and fiddling with things. Always trying out, you know, not all of them worked. But he was always constructing things. And I think he probably got that from Claude Shannon or at least it resonated with him like it resonated with me. So the three of us would sit around thinking of crazy things to build all the time.

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, Claude Shannon

Duration: 3 minutes

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017