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  • Writer's pictureLakshmi Pratury

#50over50: Danny Hillis

The Person Behind Personality in my #50over50 series an American inventor, entrepreneur, and scientist, who pioneered parallel computers and their use in artificial intelligence. He founded Thinking Machines Corporation, and subsequently was a fellow at the world famous Walt Disney Imagineering. Meet Danny Hills! Read on, to know more about his India connect why the name of his company “Thinking Machine” is an apt description for himself and how he imagined the 10,000-year-old clock!

The late 90s was a golden period for the explosion of technology. Nothing was clear and everything was possible. After the introduction of the World Wide Web and browsers like Netscape made internet accessible to everyone, possibilities seem endless but there was no clear path to monetary success. Some likened it to the times of gold rush when everyone took a paddle and tried their luck and referred to WWW of World Wide web as Wild Wild West. I was part of a small team from Intel, which worked with media companies to explore the power of the internet in the area of storytelling. We worked with companies like Disney, Viacom, Universal Studios to set up Interactive divisions to explore digital technologies. I got to meet some of the most amazing minds across disciplines from around the world. The best part of it was to interact with the media companies like Disney, which were only names on a screen until then and it was a pure privilege to meet people who made the magic happen from behind the scenes.

Walt Disney Company had a division called Disney Imagineering where the best brains from art, design, technology worked together to create unique experiences across Disney - in theme parks, television, motion pictures, and consumer products. The special effects that design compelling rides to special effects in movies to any technology innovation one can think of came from Disney Imagineering. And that’s when I met Danny Hillis. He was a Disney Fellow at Imagineering and highly respected for this technology prowess. Danny studied engineering at MIT, student of one of the doyens in Artificial Intelligence, Marvin Minski and co-founded Thinking Machines with Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman. Visiting him and his colleagues at Disney Imagineering was an experience beyond description. Danny designed full size walking dinosaur, new rides, and many more experiences.

Ours would have been a purely professional relationship but for a dinner party. Danny lived with his family in Los Angeles and we all decided to have dinner together. Instead of just going to a restaurant, I suggested that my husband Rajat and I cook Indian food at their home and invite friends. When we arrived at their home, Danny was in a kurta and Pajama greeting us with Namaste along with his toddler daughter, India Hills. We cooked a large meal together and hung out till late at night along with a dozen or so friends he invited. Over the evening, we got to know that he spent his teenage years studying in high school in Kolkata and even received a merit award from the Chief Minister of West Bengal. He said that India was so close to his heart that he named his daughter, India. I was so moved by that story and felt a bond with him that was more personal and was thrilled at the possibility of connecting him back to India in some way.

In the year 2000, Bran Farren and Danny Hillis started Applied Minds with the best talent in design, technology, engineering to create solutions for unique projects. Danny was quoted in an article in WIRED magazine saying "It's as if Willy Wonka's chocolate factory just yawned wide to welcome us. Only here, all the candy plugs in,". The thing that is unique about Danny is that he is versatile enough to apply technology in any field from computers to data centers to audio systems to touch screen interface to databases. His work has influenced many things that touch our lives today. One of his patents was the basis for the US Patent Office to reject Apple’s claim on a “pinch-to-zoom” patent in a legal dispute with Samsung, quoting that it was covered in Hillis’ patent. Technology developed by one of his companies became the basis for Google Knowledge Graph.

The project that I am most fascinated by that came out of Danny’s imagination is that of a 10,000-year-old clock. In 1986, he predicted that the society could be “alarmed” by the year 2000 and its repercussions on software and took on the project to build a mechanical clock that would last 10,000 years. He spoke about the kind of questions that one needs to ask to make something last that long – what kind of material would you use that does not rust or be destroyed over time? where would you install it so that natural calamities would not affect it? how big would it be? How can you ensure that the precision would be maintained thousands of years from now?

Danny said “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years. If I hurry I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.”

It’s not really the end product or the usefulness of it but the questions that you would need to ask to make something last much beyond your lifetime is the true purpose of this project. He co-founded “The Long Now” Foundation with Steward Brand and this was the initial project of the foundation. A prototype of the Clock of the Long is on display at the London Science Museum and a full-scale prototype mechanical clock is being installed at a site inside a mountain in western Texas, on a sire owned by Jeff Bezos and is funded by Bezos Expeditions. The lessons learned in the construction of this first full-scale 10,000-year clock will help the final design of the clock in Nevada. In describing the project, Stewart Brand said “such icons reframe the way people think”.

In a world where we live by quarterly results and daily likes, it is refreshing to think of something that can outlast us for generations and become a desired pace to visit centuries from now.

Danny is someone who not just thinks big but stays relevant so that the tech superpowers of every generation still stay in awe of his large thinking and precise implementation. The name of his company “Thinking Machine” is an apt description for Danny himself. And that makes this machine have a heart may have something to do with a bit of India that he carries with him.

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