William Daniel "Danny" Hillis (born September 25, 1956, in Baltimore, Maryland) is an American inventor, entrepreneur, and author. He co-founded Thinking Machines Corporation, a company that developed the Connection Machine, a parallel supercomputer designed by Hillis at MIT. He is also co-founder of the Long Now Foundation, Applied Minds, Metaweb, and author of The Pattern on the Stone: The Simple Ideas That Make Computers Work.
Daniel Hillis was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1956. His father was a US Air Force epidemiologist studying hepatitis in Africa and moved with his family through Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire, and Kenya. During these years the young Hillis was home schooled by his mother, a biostatistician , and developed an early appreciation for mathematics and biology.
During this time Hillis worked at the MIT Logo Laboratory developing computer hardware and software for children. He designed computer-oriented toys and games for the Milton Bradley Company, and co-founded Terrapin Software — a producer of computer software for elementary schools. He also built a digital computer composed of Tinkertoys that was previously displayed at The Computer Museum, Boston.
Hillis' major research, however, was into parallel computing. Hillis designed the Connection Machine, a parallel supercomputer which spawned Thinking Machines Corporation, a company co-founded by Hillis in 1983 to produce and market the line of supercomputers based on this design. In 1988, continuing this research, Hillis received a PhD in EECS from MIT under doctoral adviser Gerald Jay Sussman.
Hillis co-founded Thinking Machines Corporation in 1983 during his doctoral work at MIT. The company was to develop Hillis' Connection Machine design into a commercial parallel supercomputer line, and to explore computational pathways to building artificial intelligence. Hillis' ambitions are reflected in the company's motto: "We're building a machine that will be proud of us," and Hillis' parallel architecture was to be the key component in approaching this task:
Clearly, the organizing principle of the brain is parallelism. It's using massive parallelism. The information is in the connection between a lot of very simple parallel units working together. So if we built a computer that was more along that system of organization, it would likely be able to do the same kinds of things the brain does.
In 1994, however, Thinking Machines filed bankruptcy and much of the company was sold off. Hillis left Thinking Machines in 1995 to start a small consulting company, DHSH. One of DHSH's clients was The Walt Disney Company. In 1996, after a stint at the MIT Media Lab, Hillis joined Disney full time in the newly created role of Disney Fellow. Later, he took the position of Vice President, Research and Development of Walt Disney Imagineering, the research and development arm of The Walt Disney Company, one of Hillis' early dreams: "I've wanted to work at Disney ever since I was a child... I remember listening to Walt Disney on television describing the 'Imagineers' who designed Disneyland. I decided then that someday I would be an Imagineer. Later, I became interested in a different kind of magic - the magic of computers. Now I finally have the perfect job - bringing computer magic into Disney At Disney, Hillis developed new technologies as well as business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer products businesses. He also designed new theme park rides, a full sized walking robot dinosaur and various micro mechanical devices.
Hillis left Disney in 2000, taking with him Bran Ferren, the head of the Imagineering group. Together, Ferren and Hillis founded Applied Minds, a company aimed at providing technology and consulting services to firms in an array of industries. In July 2005, Hillis and others from Applied Minds founded Metaweb Technologies to develop a semantic data storage infrastructure for the web, and Freebase, an "open, shared database of the world's knowledge".
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 across 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.
Hillis' approach to building artificial intelligence asserts that parallelism itself is something close to the chief ingredient of intelligence; that there is no further "secret sauce" required to make a mind come out of a distributed network of processors. Hillis believes that "intelligence is just a whole lot of little things, thousands of them. And what will happen is we'll learn about each one at a time, and as we do it, machines will be more and more like people. It will be a gradual process, and that's been happening."
This is not so far off from Marvin Minsky's Society of Mind theory, which holds that the mind is a collection of agents, each one taking care of a particular aspect of intelligence, and communicating with one another, exchanging information as required.
Some AI theorists hold other views – that it's not the underlying computational mode that’s crucial, but rather particular algorithms (of reasoning, memory, perception, etc.). Others argue that the right combination of "little things" is needed to give rise to the overall emergent patterns of coordinated activity that constitute real intelligence.
Hillis stands as one of a small number of people who have made a serious attempt to create such a "thinking machine" and his ambitions are clear:
"I'd like to find a way for consciousness to transcend human flesh. Building a thinking machine is really a search for a kind of Earthly immortality. Something much more intelligent than we can exist. Making a thinking machine is my way to reach out to that."
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.