Danny Hillis

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Daniel Hillis
Danny Hillis, 2014 (crop).jpg
Hillis in 2014
Born William Daniel Hillis
(1956-09-25) September 25, 1956 (age 61)
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Residence Cambridge, Massachusetts
Nationality American
Alma mater Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Awards Dan David Prize (2002)
Grace Murray Hopper Award (1989)
Scientific career
Fields Computer Science
Computer Engineering
Institutions Thinking Machines
Walt Disney Imagineering
Applied Minds
Doctoral advisor Marvin Minsky
Gerald Jay Sussman
Claude Shannon

William Daniel "Danny" Hillis (born September 25, 1956) is an American inventor, entrepreneur, scientist, writer, and visionary who is particularly known for his work in computer science. He is best known as the founder of Thinking Machines Corporation, the pioneering parallel supercomputer manufacturer, and subsequently was a Fellow at Walt Disney Imagineering. More recently, Hillis co-founded Applied Minds, the technology R&D think-tank.[1]

Currently, he is co-founder of Applied Invention, an interdisciplinary group of engineers, scientists, and artists that develops technology solutions in partnership with leading companies and entrepreneurs.[2]

Hillis is Visiting Professor at the MIT Media Lab, Judge Widney Professor of Engineering and Medicine at the University of Southern California [3] , Professor of Research Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and Research Professor of Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.[4] He is the Principal Investigator of the National Cancer Institutes's Physical Sciences in Oncology Laboratory at USC. [5]


Early life and Academic Work[edit]

Born September 25, 1956 in Baltimore, Maryland, Danny Hillis spent much of his childhood living overseas, in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and received his Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics in 1978. As an undergraduate he worked at the MIT Logo (programming language) Laboratory under Seymour Papert developing computer hardware and software for children.[6] During this time, he also designed computer-oriented toys and games for the Milton Bradley Company. While still a college student he was co-founder of Terrapin Inc., a producer of computer software for elementary schools.[7][8]

As a graduate student at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory[9], Hillis designed tendon-controlled robot arms [10] and a touch-sensitive robot "skin"[11]

During his college years, Hillis built a computer composed entirely of Tinkertoys[12]. It was previously on display at the Boston Computer Museum [13][14] and the Boston Museum of Science[15], and is currently exhibited at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.[16]

At MIT, Hillis began to study the physical limitations of computation and the possibility of building highly parallel computers. This work culminated in the design of a massively parallel computer with 64,000 processors. He named it the Connection Machine, and it became the topic of his Ph.D., for which he received the 1985 Association for Computing Machinery Doctoral Dissertation award [17] Hillis earned his doctorate as a Hertz Foundation Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the mentor ship of Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon and Gerald Sussman, receiving his Ph.D. in 1988. He later served as adjunct professor at the MIT Media Lab, where he wrote The Pattern on the Stone.

Technology Career[edit]

Hillis has founded a number of creative technology companies, most notable Thinking Machines Corporation, Applied Minds, Metaweb Technologies, Applied Proteomics[18], and Applied Invention[19]

Thinking Machines[edit]

As a graduate student at MIT, Hillis co-founded Thinking Machine Corporation to produce and market parallel computers, developing a series of influential products called the Connection Machine. The Connection Machine was used in demanding computation and data-intensive applications. It was used by the Stanford Exploration Project for oil exploration[20][21] and for pioneering data mining applications by American Express,[22] as well as many scientific applications at organizations including Schlumberger, Harvard University, University of Tokyo, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA, Sandia National Laboratories, National Center for Supercomputer Applications, Army High Performance Computing Research Center, University of California Berkeley, University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Syracuse University.

In addition to designing the company's major products, Hillis worked closely with users of his machine, applying it to problems in astrophysics, aircraft design, financial analysis, genetics, computer graphics, medical imaging, image understanding, neurobiology, materials science, cryptography, and subatomic physics.

At Thinking Machines, he built a legendary team of scientists, designers, and engineers, including legends in the field as well as those who later became leaders and innovators in multiple industries. The team included such luminaries as Sydney Brenner, Richard Feynman[23], Brewster Kahle, and Eric Lander.

Among the users of Thinking Machines computers was Sergey Brin, who went on later to found Google, and who used the Connection Machine CM-2 to write parallel processing software while an undergraduate at University of Maryland.[24]

Disney Imagineering[edit]

In 1996, Hillis joined The Walt Disney Company in the newly created role of Disney Fellow[25] and as Vice President, Research and Development at Disney Imagineering[26]. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, and consumer products businesses.[27][28] He also designed new theme park rides, a full-sized walking dinosaur, [29] and various micro mechanical devices.

Applied Minds[edit]

Hillis left Disney in 2000, taking with him Bran Ferren, President of the Walt Disney Imagineering, R&D Creative Technologies division. Together, Ferren and Hillis founded Applied Minds, a company aimed at providing technology and consulting services to firms in an array of industries, including aerospace, electronics, and toys. In July 2005, Hillis and others from Applied Minds initiated Metaweb Technologies, Inc. to develop a semantic data storage infrastructure for the Internet, and Freebase, an "open, shared database of the world's knowledge". When Metaweb was acquired by Google, the technology became the basis of Google’s Knowledge Graph.[30] Hillis, together with Dr. David B. Agus, cofounded a spinoff of Applied Minds called Applied Proteomics Inc which designed and prototyped a machine that measures the level of proteins in the blood for medical diagnosis.[31]

Hillis’ work with Agus on cancer led to the founding of the University of Southern California Physical Sciences-Oncology Center (USC PS-OC), funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Hillis is the principal investigator of this program.

Hillis speaking at a Long Now Foundation event in San Francisco in 2014

The Long Now Foundation and the Clock of the Long Now[edit]

In 1993, with Thinking Machines facing its demise, Hillis wrote about long-term thinking and suggested a project to build a clock designed to function for millennia:

When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. Now, thirty years later, they still talk about what will happen by the year 2000. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life. I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of the Millennium. I would like to propose a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.

This clock became the Clock of the Long Now, a name coined by the songwriter and composer, Brian Eno. Hillis wrote an article for Wired magazine suggesting a clock that would last over 10,000 years. The project led directly to the founding of the Long Now Foundation in 1996 by Hillis and others, including Stewart Brand, Brian Eno, Esther Dyson, and Mitch Kapor.

"The Pattern on the Stone"[edit]

Hillis' 1998 popular science book The Pattern on the Stone attempts to explain concepts from computer science for laymen using simple language, metaphor and analogy. It moves from Boolean algebra through topics such as information theory, parallel computing, cryptography, algorithms, heuristics, Turing machines, and promising technologies such as quantum computing and emergent systems.


  1. ^ appliedminds.com
  2. ^ [https://www.appliedinvention.com
  3. ^ http://about.usc.edu/faculty/named-chairs-and-professorships/
  4. ^ [1] Mankin, Eric. "Applied Minds Co-founder appointed to the Viterbi research faculty"
  5. ^ [2] "W. Daniel Hillis, Ph.D., Principal Investigator". University of Southern California Physical Sciences - Oncology Center.
  6. ^ "Parallel Computing Pioneers: W. Daniel Hillis". Parallel Computing Research Newsletter. 4 (4). Fall 1996. 
  7. ^ Scannell, Tim (June 5, 1978). "Micro-based turtle serves as mapping, teaching aid". Computerworld: 151. 
  8. ^ Personal Computing: 17. August 17, 1978 https://archive.org/stream/PersonalComputing197808/Personal%20Computing%201978-08#page/n17/mode/2up/search/robot+turtle.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. ^ Rifkin, Glenn (January 28, 2016). "Marvin Minsky, pioneer in artificial intelligence, dies at 88". New York Times. 
  10. ^ Hillis, W.D. "Active touch sensing" (PDF). Master's dissertation MIT. 
  11. ^ Hillis, W.D. (June 1982). "A high resolution imaging touch sensor". International Journal of Robotics Research. 1 (2): 33–44. 
  12. ^ Dewdney, A.K. (October 1989). "A Tinkertoy computer that plays tic-tac-toe" (PDF). Scientific American. 
  13. ^ "Tinkertoy Computer". 
  14. ^ "Tinkertoy Computer with Danny Hillis and Mitch Kapor". 
  15. ^ "Tinker Toy Computer". MIT Museum. 
  16. ^ "Tinkertoy Computer". Computer History Museum. 
  17. ^ https://awards.acm.org/award_winners/hillis_4558874.cfm.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  18. ^ "Applied Proteomics". 
  19. ^ "Applied Invention". 
  20. ^ "Stanford University announces the purchase of Thinking Machines' CM-5 Supercomputer System"". PR Newswire. May 27, 1992. 
  21. ^ "High Performance Computing & Seismic Imaging". Stanford Exploration Project. 
  22. ^ Markoff, John (August 16, 1994). "Thinking Machines to file for bankruptcy". New York Times. 
  23. ^ Hillis, W. (1999). "Richard Feynman and the Connection Machine". Physics Today. 42 (2). 
  24. ^ Brin, Sergey. Stanford University http://infolab.stanford.edu/~sergey/resume.html.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  25. ^ "Danny Hillis named first member of Disney Fellows program". HPC Wire. May 17, 1996. 
  26. ^ Bronson, Po (March 1, 1997). "Disney Fellows". Wired. 
  27. ^ Hafner, Katie (August 11, 1997). "Disney's Wizards". Newsweek. 
  28. ^ Remnick, David (20 & 27 October 1997). "The Next Magic Kingdom, Future Perfect". The New Yorker.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  29. ^ Saunders, Fenella (March 1, 2001). "A giant among robots". Discover. 
  30. ^ "Google Gives Search a Refresh". Wall Street Journal. 
  31. ^ "Applied Proteomics". Applied Proteomics Inc. Retrieved March 9, 2011. 

External links[edit]