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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]

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

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 WorkEdit

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 careerEdit

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 MachinesEdit

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 ImagineeringEdit

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 MindsEdit

In 2000, Hillis co-founded the R&D think-tank Applied Minds with his Disney colleague, Bran Ferren. Drawing on the founders' interdisciplinary backgrounds, Applied Minds built a team of engineers, scientists, and designers that provided design and technology services for clients. The uniquely creative environment and the diverse projects it undertook gained Applied Minds abundant media attention. "It's as if Willy Wonka's chocolate factory just yawned wide to welcome us. Only here, all the candy plugs in," said an article in Wired magazine.[30] Work done at the firm covered the gamut of industries and application domains, including satellites,[31] military helicopters,[32] and educational facilities.[33]

While at Applied Minds, Hillis designed and built a large-scale computer datacenter for Sun Microsystems (the Sun Modular Datacenter) that would fit into a standard 20' shipping container[34]

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

,[35] solving, among others, the problems of accommodating processor capacity, cooling, power requirements, and storage[36] within a uniquely portable solution. This "datacenter in a box," which may be transported to any location and requires minimal infrastructure, has now become a common method for building large data centers.[37]

For Herman Miller (manufacturer), Hillis designed an audio privacy solution[38][39] based on phonetic jumbling - Babble[40]- which was received in the media as a version of the Cone of Silence, and was marketed through a new company, Sonare. Also for Herman Miller, Hillis developed a flexible reconfigurable power and lighting system,[41][42] which was marketed through another new company, Convia.

As part of an early touchscreen map table interface, Hillis patented inventions on the use of multiple touch points to control a zoom interface.[43] One of these patents was the basis for the USPTO decision[44] to reject Apple Inc.'s claim on a "pinch-to-zoom" patent in its legal dispute with Samsung.

Metaweb TechnologiesEdit

In 2005, Hillis and others from Applied Minds founded Metaweb Technologies to develop a semantic data storage infrastructure[45] for the Internet, and Freebase, an open, structured database of the world's knowledge.[46] That company was acquired by Google,[47] and its technology became the basis of the Google Knowledge Graph.

Applied ProteomicsEdit

Hillis co-founded Applied Proteomics (API)[18] with David Agus, a leading oncologist and innovator in molecular medicine applications, to make proteomics-based biomarker discovery practical and productive.[48] Using their combined expertise in oncology, proteomics, systems control, and computation, at API, Hillis and his colleagues developed groundbreaking protein biomarker discovery platforms and a blood test for early stage colon cancer.[49] API was named one of the 13 "fiercest medical devices and diagnostic companies" of 2013.[50]

Applied InventionEdit

Hillis's latest venture is Applied Invention, another interdisciplinary group of engineers, scientists and artists, where is he co-founder. Applied Invention develops technology solutions in partnership with leading companies and entrepreneurs.

Applied Invention is a partner and co-owner of The Dark Sky Company,[51] a weather forecasting technology company with consumer web and mobile applications[52] as well as offerings for third-party developers and corporations.

Hillis is a prolific inventor, holding over 300 patents[53] in fields including parallel computers, touch interfaces, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, electronic and mechanical devices, and bio-medical techniques, RAID disk arrays, multicore multiprocessors and for wormhole routing in parallel processing.[54]

"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.

The Long Now FoundationEdit

In 1986, Hillis expressed the alarm that society has a "mental barrier" of looking at the year 2000 as the limit of the future.[55] He proposed a long-term project to overcome this- a mechanical clock that would last 10,000 years. This project became the initial project of The Long Now Foundation, which he co-founded with Stewart Brand and where he serves as co-chairman. A prototype of the Clock of the Long Now is on display at the London Science Museum. A full-scale prototype is being installed at a site inside a mountain in western Texas.[56]


Hillis is the recipient of numerous awards, including the inaugural Dan David Prize for shaping and enriching society and public life in 2002, the 1991 Spirit of American Creativity Award for his inventions, the 1989 Grace Murray Hopper Award for his contributions to computer science, and the 1988 Ramanujan Award for his work in applied mathematics.

Hillis is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery, a Fellow of the International Leadership Forum, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Applied Invention
  3. ^
  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. ^ "Robot Turtle". Personal Computing. August 17, 1978. 
  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. ^ "William Daniel Hillis". Award Winners. Association for Computing Machinery. 
  18. ^ a b "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. ^ "Alums". Stanford University InfoLab. 
  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 (October 20, 1997). "The Next Magic Kingdom, Future Perfect". The New Yorker. 
  29. ^ Saunders, Fenella (March 1, 2001). "A giant among robots". Discover. 
  30. ^ Jardin, Xeni. "Applied Minds Think Remarkably". Wired. 
  31. ^ Kwan, Carissa. "Mayflower Test Satellite, Jointly Developed by Northrop Grumman and Applied Minds, Proves Successful During Recent SpaceX Mission". 
  32. ^ Sabbagh, Leslie (October 3, 2006). "Flying Blind in Iraq: U.S. Helicopters Navigate Real Desert Storms". Popular Mechanics. 
  33. ^ Tabor, Aimee (February 5, 2007). "New School Will Provide More Learning Opportunites". The Casper Star-Tribune. 
  34. ^ Markoff, John (October 17, 2006). "It's a Shipping Container". The New York Times. 
  35. ^ Robertson, Jordan (October 17, 2006). "Sun Microsystems Unveils Data Center". The Washington Post. 
  36. ^ Waldrop, M. Mitchell (August 2007). "Data Center in a Box". Scientific American. 
  37. ^ Malik, Om. "Suns's Computing on Demand, Literally". GigaOm. 
  38. ^ Scanlon, Jessie (July 2005). "Keep It Down! I'm Trying to Work". Wired. 
  39. ^ Markoff, John (May 30, 2005). "No Privacy in Your Cubicle? Try an Electronic Silencer". The New York Times. 
  40. ^ Kramer, Melody Joy (December 2005). "Babble: Innovations of the Year". Esquire. 
  41. ^ Kimes, Mina (May 25, 2009). "Herman Miller's High-Wire Act" (159.11). Fortune. 
  42. ^ Hall, Peter (June 2007). "Push-Button Rewiring". Metropolis. 
  43. ^ Hillis; et al. "Touch driven method and apparatus to integrate and display multiple image layers forming alternate depictions of same subject matter". US Patent 7,724,242. 
  44. ^ Ribero, J (July 29, 2013). "US patent office rejects claims of Apple 'pinch to zoom' patent". PC World. 
  45. ^ Markoff, John (March 9, 2007). "Start-up aims for database to automate web searching". New York Times. 
  46. ^ Mellor, Belle (June 7, 2007). "Sharing What Matters" (15). The Economist. 
  47. ^ Rubin, Courtney. "Metaweb acquired by Google". Inc. 
  48. ^ Buchen, Lizzie (July 13, 2010). "Crunching Cancer with Numbers". New Scientist. 
  49. ^ Pogrelc, Deanna. "Applied Proteomics lands $28M for diagnostics that spot disease by capturing protein activity". Med City News. Retrieved August 20, 2013. 
  50. ^ "FierceMedicalDevices' 2013 Fierce 15". FierceBiotech. 
  51. ^ Grossman, Adam. "Dark Sky Has a New Owner". Retrieved January 12, 2015. 
  52. ^ Kastrenakes, Jacob. "The 9 best apps for Apple Watch you can get right now". The Verve. Retrieved April 24, 2015. 
  53. ^ "US Patent Office search results show 321 patents". USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database. Retrieved December 7, 2016. 
  54. ^ Leiserson, C.; et al. (1992). "The Network Architecture of the Connection Machine CM-5". SPAA '92 Proceedings of the fourth annual ACM symposium of Parallel algorithms and architectures. 
  55. ^ "About Long Now". 
  56. ^ "The 10,000 Year Clock". The Long Now Foundation. 

External linksEdit