Digerati - Chapter 13

Digerati - Chapter 13

W. Daniel Hillis [10.1.96]

Chapter 13


The Genius

THE THINKER (Doug Carlston): Danny is one of the great spirits of the computer industry. He's the one fellow every techie I know would give his right arm to work for. Although his last company, Thinking Machines, didn't survive, Danny is the sort of guy to place your bets on.

Danny Hillis is vice president of research and development at the Walt Disney Company and a Disney Fellow. He was cofounder and chief scientist of Thinking Machines Corporation.

There's nothing odd about Danny Hillis's working for Disney. The founder of Thinking Machines Corporation and the innovative designer of the massively parallel "connection machine," Danny used to drive to work in a fire engine and was once a toy designer for Milton Bradley. In college, he became interested in building a computer out of anything. As a demonstration, he and some friends built the Tinkertoy computer, which was comprised of 10,000 Tinkertoys and could play tick-tack-toe. His interest in building gadgets and games was, to some degree, influenced by his friend, the late physicist Richard Feynman, who would leave Caltech in the summer to go to Cambridge to work for Danny at Thinking Machines.

Part of Danny's charm is his childlike curiosity and demeanor. The first time we talked was on the telephone one Sunday morning in 1988 when he was at his home in Cambridge. We got into a serious discussion about the relationship of physics to computation. "This is interesting," he said. "I'd like to come to New York and continue the conversation face-to-face." Three hours later, my doorbell rang, and there stood a young man, looking like a clean-cut hippie. He had long hair, wore a plain white T-shirt and jeans, and carried nothing. We talked for hours.

I later returned the visit. This was a different side of Danny, the chief scientist and cofounder of Thinking Machines, at the time one of the hottest companies in America. He lived with his family in a huge old house off Brattle Street. The domestic scene I entered included a bunch of babies, two au pairs (a blonde from France and a brunette from Argentina), a dog, and a houseful of interesting guests — all presided over by Danny and his wife, Patty. I sat in the living room with Danny and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould as they discussed the effect of massively parallel computers on evolutionary theory; meanwhile, Danny's mentor, computer scientist Marvin Minsky, played Mozart sonatas on the grand piano in the adjacent room.

Danny's energies have concentrated on getting processors to work together so that computation takes place with communicating processors, as happens with the Internet. The Net's potential to become an organism of intelligent agents interacting with each other, with an intelligence of its own that goes beyond the intelligence of the individual agents fires Danny up. "In a sense," he says, "the Net can become smarter than any of the individual people on the Net or sites on the Net. Parallel processing is the way that kind of emergent phenomenon can happen. The Net right now is only a glimmer of that."

Danny describes the Internet of today simply as a huge document that is stored in a lot of different places and that can be modified by many people at once, but essentially a document in the old sense of the word. In principle, the Internet could be done on paper, but the logistics are much better handled with the computer. "I am interested in the step beyond that," he says, "where what is going on is not just a passive document, but an active computation, where people are using the Net to think of new things that they couldn't think of as individuals, where the Net thinks of new things that the individuals on the Net couldn't think of."

Danny asks questions like What are the limits to what computers can do? Can they think? Do they learn? His intellectual range is startling. Unlike many other people engaged in the world of computing, he does not limit himself to any particular group of colleagues. Some of his biggest fans are among the brightest people on the planet. Marvin Minsky says "Danny Hillis is one of the most inventive people I've ever met, and one of the deepest thinkers." Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett says, "what Danny did was to create if not the first then one of the first really practical, really massive, parallel computers. It precipitated a gold rush." Physicist and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann notes that "he's not only a daring person, which we know, but also a deep thinker — and a very effective one." Danny Hillis is "The Genius."

THE GENIUS (W. Daniel Hillis): People are so tuned in to the near term that they aren't thinking in terms of decades. Yet, over the long run, we have a chance of fundamentally changing humanity. Many people sense this, but don't want to think about it because the change is too profound. Today, on the Internet the main event is the Web. A lot of people think that the Web is the Internet, and they're missing something. The Internet is a brand-new fertile ground where things can grow, and the Web is the first thing that grew there. But the stuff growing there is in a very primitive form. The Web is the old media incorporated into the new medium. It both adds something to the Internet and takes something away.

The Web provides a large set of people with a new kind of accessibility. There is more equality in the Web's ratio of mouths to ears than in the mass media. In fact, unlike the broadcast media, you can even have more mouths than ears on the Internet, as you often do. It is enabling because it lowers the threshold of publishing, the threshold for getting information out. People distrust institutions. They don't like having their voice limited by institutions. The idea that they can take the power into their own hands and put something out on the Net fits very well with this mood of the times, which calls for self-reliance. The energy from the Web is not coming from people who are seeking information. It's coming from people who have information that they want to send out or who are providing a mechanism for giving that information to others.

The old idea of information concerns something that is of value to the receiver, but that kind of information is not what causes people to go online. If you look at what's driving the Web, it's clear that the act of communication is often of as much value to the transmitter as to the receiver, and perhaps more so. The people who are doing exciting things on the Web are the people who are publishing Web sites, not the people who are reading them. The real business opportunity on the Net right now is giving people who have something to say a way to say it and a place to say it. A great example is Industry.Net, a company that charges people to list their products on a product-finding service on the Web. It doesn't charge the people who are searching; it charges the people who want to be found by the searchers.

Part of the energy stems from the idea that the Web is a frontier, where people can stake a claim, strike it rich, and make a name for themselves. Just like the gold rush, the primary consequence will not be how a few people can make a lot of money. Most of the consequences of the gold rush were cultural and societal: the change of community, the habitation of a new area, and different relationships for people. There are going to be a lot of ghost towns on the Web.

When people look at the interaction between the content and the person, or the computer and the person, the first thing they see is that the Internet offers a new mode of interaction. People with something useful to say that is of interest to other people don't have to go through the process of convincing the bureaucracy, the powers that be, in order to connect with their customers. It can happen very quickly; on the Web, two guys working in a basement who have a computer and a good idea can become a multinational corporation overnight.

Both good news and bad news accompany that capability. The good news is the opportunity story, the gold rush story. The bad news is that there are perhaps too many stories of "two guys in their basement" who want to establish contact with you. In some sense, they are making the channel more noisy. The impact of the Internet on human communications has the potential of leading you to increasingly superficial interactions with more and more people. Attention is the scarce commodity on the Internet because individuals have only a finite attention span. Mechanisms that manage attention become increasingly important.

One consequence is that brands become much more important on the Internet. Brand identity has been diluted in some products because brands have diversified so much that a lot of them don't mean anything anymore. Disney is one of the few studios, perhaps the only studio, whose brand means anything, which is important. If you, the consumer, are not locked into your relationships by physical mechanisms — the truck route, the guy that delivers the products onto the grocery shelf, and so on — if you are free to form any relationship with any supplier, the importance of knowing who is making the product is increased. The brand becomes important.

The funny thing about selling information is that I can't show you what I have to sell you without giving it to you. When you pay for information, you're always paying for the last information you received, not the next information you're going to get. The only thing of value in that transaction, then, is the relationship with the party from whom you got the information last time. That's the value you expect from the channel. If you got the information through the Internet, the only valuable thing is the brand, because that's the name of the channel. In this regard, a person can be a brand name. A book author is the perfect example.

Disney is a brand because if the label on the box says "Disney" you have certain expectations. MCA/Universal is a corporation. Maybe Universal has economy of scale because it can do things like negotiate with unions, but consumers have no particular expectation of what they are going to get with that brand name. Bill Paley used to talk to me about the old days of radio, when the name CBS meant something, as distinguished from NBC. What Bill did was make CBS mean something special. Today it doesn't mean anything; you expect to see the same things on CBS that you see on NBC.

Take a company like Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. Its greatest assets used to be its sales force. In this new world they've become a liability. But what is of incredible value is the brand, and if the company can work out a new way of exploiting the brand on the Web, completely divorced from the physical books, the brand can become a much more valuable asset.

There's a lot of confusion about what interactivity means. Being told a story has value, but interacting with a set of characters is not always better than being told a story. Being given a complete kit of parts to design your own automobile, or to design your own clothes, is not as useful as having somebody do it for you. I don't go to a restaurant to cook my own meal. In the same sense, being able to throw together your own magazine or newspaper with all the bits and pieces of information you can find on the Web is not as useful as having somebody put together a magazine or newspaper for you.

Looking down the road, the Internet promises something even more exciting than people interacting: computers interacting with computers in nontrivial ways. It's popular now to view the computer as a multimedia engine. In other words, it's an engine that absorbs all the other media, like pictures and sounds, manipulates them, and plays them for people and makes them dance on the screen. That's interesting because of the human interaction it causes, but it misses a lot of what's fundamentally possible with computers — computers don't have to manipulate the human representations of ideas; they can actually manipulate the ideas themselves.

This comes back to the view of the Web as the first form of life to grow on the Internet. It's the slime mold of the Internet. I don't want to disparage it, but it's primitive. When computers pass around Web pages, they don't know what they're talking about. They're just passing around bits, and they can be meaningless bits as far as they're concerned. They're just acting like a big telephone system. It's much more interesting when computers actually understand what they're talking about. Java is one of the first beginnings of this happening on the network. Java represents one computer saying to another computer something that's meaningful to the two computers. Java is perhaps a bad example, because the meaning I refer to could be just a command to paint a line on the screen. The meaning is usually trivial, but it's not fundamentally trivial because it means that computers are beginning to understand themselves.

In the long run, the Internet will arrive at a much richer infrastructure, in which ideas can potentially evolve outside of human minds. You can imagine something happening on the Internet along evolutionary lines, as in the simulations I run on my parallel computers. It already happens in trivial ways, with viruses, but that's just the beginning. I can imagine nontrivial forms of organization evolving on the Internet. Ideas could evolve on the Internet that are much too complicated to hold in any human mind.

In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein writes about a network of computers becoming sentient. That's an extreme example, but we can certainly detect forms of organization that we didn't design. We do that in biology all the time. We watch, and observe a pattern of organization we can identify, and we can even make sense out of it, but that doesn't mean we engineered it. As the Internet gets more complicated and computers start interacting — not just carrying messages for humans but actually transmitting content meaningful to the computer — we may see patterns that we can appreciate, just as we appreciate the patterns of living organisms. We won't necessarily understand all the their details, just as we don't really understand all the details of living organisms. Over the long term, this could be extremely important. Some new forms of organization that go beyond humans may be evolving. In the short term, forms of human organization are enabled.

THE SEER (David Bunnell): Danny has somehow become an adult without giving up the best qualities of childhood. There are many geniuses who act like children. Danny is not one of those. He acts like a grown-up who knows how to play. 

THE CYBERANALYST (Sherry Turkle): Danny Hillis is able to translate complicated matters into simple, direct, and vivid explanations. Among his many gifts, he is a great teacher.

THE SEARCHER (Brewster Kahle): Danny has the rare combination of technical insight and a good personal nature. I call him a mentor, and so would many others. In terms of understanding technologies, Danny was always able to see the trends and come up with the right answers despite too little information. When people talked about CPUs, Danny was talking about the network — I am amazed to see the vision of a massively parallel computer being currently incarnated on the global scale of the Internet.

THE SCRIBE (John Markoff): Danny is someone who's seriously committed to the idea of building machines that think. He's been engaged in a decade-long quest and he's still trying to figure his way there. He's gotten sidetracked for the moment, but I'm hoping he'll come back to that.

THE IMPRESARIO (Richard Saul Wurman): Already a legend, even if he just plays marbles for the rest of his life. Even his sidebars are worth saving.

THE CATALYST (Linda Stone): Intelligence is a combination of common sense, sense of humor, and point of view. Danny has all three in such great quantity that he is amazing to be around. There's nobody quite like him. He simultaneously moves straight forward and comes out of left field.

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.