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My close encounter with an elephant
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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The useless machine which I think, you know, I think that probably was Claude [Shannon]'s idea but Marvin [Minsky] built the first one. It was the, you know, the machine that reaches a hand out and turns itself off every time you turned it on. Ed Fredkin was another one. You know, he built the music synthesiser called the Muse. Yes, we were all building robot turtles and crazy kinds of robot. I was working on a robot elephant trunk.

In fact, that was another one of my elephant stories. I always got along well with elephants, but I was working on a robot elephant trunk which was controlled with wires because I thought it was really interesting how elephant trunks moved, sort of different way of building a robot. And I decided I needed to see a real elephant. And so I went down to the Stoneham Zoo and there was a baby elephant at the Stoneham Zoo. And I got as close as I could to it but I couldn't really see how its trunk worked. So I looked around and there were... I was in a pair of overalls and there was only this kind of ditch between me and the elephant and a very low wall to climb over. So nobody was looking, so I climbed over the wall, went down into the ditch and went up to the elephant. Which looked much bigger once I got next to it. Then I was a little scared.

And I realised I was there, in with the elephant. And so I sort of approached it like you do a dog, I decided to let it sniff me. So I sort of stuck out my foot so that he could smell me. And it stuck out its trunk and it started to sniff me a little bit. But then I didn't kind of realise it sort of has a hand on the end of its trunk. And so it grabbed my foot and it lifted me up in the air. I mean, I'm still jumping on one foot, it only had one. And then this whole group of school kids came along and the teacher said, 'Look at the man from the zoo playing with the elephant.' I was going back and forth between trying to keep my cool and wave at the kids versus saying: Help, get me out of here! But eventually the elephant let me go and I waited for the school kids to go away, climbed back out. But I was always good friends with elephants.

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: Stoneham Zoo, Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon, Edward Fredkin

Duration: 2 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017