Danny Hillis

Danny Hillis

William Daniel (“Danny”) Hillis 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, the pioneering parallel supercomputer manufacturer, and subsequently was a Fellow at Walt Disney Imagineering. More recently, Hillis cofounded Applied Minds, the technology R&D think-tank.

Currently, he is cofounder of Applied Invention, an interdisciplinary group of engineers, scientists, and artists that develops technology solutions in partnership with leading companies and entrepreneurs.

Hillis is Visiting Professor at the MIT Media Lab1, Judge Widney Professor of Engineering and Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC)2, Professor of Research Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine3, and Research Professor of Engineering at the Viterbi School of Engineering4. He is the Principal Investigator of the National Cancer Institute’s Physical Sciences in Oncology Laboratory at USC.

Early Life and Academic Work

Born Sept. 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 Laboratory under Seymour Papert developing computer hardware and software for children5. During this time, he also designed computer-oriented toys and games for the Milton Bradley Co. While still a college student he was cofounder of Terrapin Inc., a producer of computer software for elementary schools6 7.

As a graduate student at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory8, Hillis designed tendon-controlled robot arms9 and a touch-sensitive robot "skin”10.

During his college years, Hillis built a computer composed entirely of Tinkertoys11. It was previously on display at the Boston Computer Museum12 13 and the Boston Museum of Science14, and is currently exhibited at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California15.

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 Machine16, and it became the topic of his Ph.D., for which he received the 1985 ACM Doctoral Dissertation award17. Hillis earned his doctorate as a Hertz Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the mentorship 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 Stone18.

Technology Career

Hillis has founded a number of creative technology companies, most notably Thinking Machines, Applied Minds, Metaweb Technologies, Applied Proteomics, and Applied Invention.

Thinking Machines

As a graduate student at MIT, Hillis cofounded Thinking Machines Corp19. 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 exploration20 21, and for pioneering data mining applications by American Express22, as well as many scientific applications at organizations including Schlumberger, Harvard University, the 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.23

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 Feynman24, 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 U of Maryland25.

Walt Disney Imagineering

In 1996, Hillis joined The Walt Disney Company in the newly created role of Disney Fellow26, and as Vice President, Research and Development at Disney Imagineering27. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney’s theme parks, television, motion pictures, and consumer products businesses28 29. He also designed new theme park rides, a full-sized walking robot dinosaur30, and various micro mechanical devices.

Applied Minds

In 2000, Hillis cofounded the R&D think-tank Applied Minds31 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 magazine32. Work done at the firm covered the gamut of industries and application domains, including satellites33, military helicopters34, and educational facilities35.

While at Applied Minds, Hillis designed and built a large-scale computer datacenter for Sun Microsystems (the Sun Modular Datacenter36) that would fit into a standard 20’ shipping container37 38, solving, among others, the problems of accommodating processor capacity, cooling, power requirements, and storage39 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 datacenters40.

For Herman Miller, Hillis designed an audio privacy solution41 42 based on phonemic jumbling — Babble43 — which was received in the media as a version of the Cone of Silence44, and was marketed through a new company, Sonare. Also for Herman Miller, Hillis developed a flexible reconfigurable power and lighting system45 46, which was marketed through another new company, Convia47.

As part of an early touch-screen map table interface, Hillis patented inventions on the use of multiple touch points to control a zoom interface48. One of these patents was the basis for the USPTO decision49 to reject Apple’s claim on a “pinch-to-zoom” patent in its legal dispute with Samsung.

Metaweb Technologies

In 2005, Hillis and others from Applied Minds founded Metaweb Technologies50 to develop a semantic data storage infrastructure51 for the Internet, and Freebase52, an open, structured database of the world's knowledge53. That company was acquired by Google54, and its technology became the basis of the Google Knowledge Graph55.

Applied Proteomics

Danny Hillis cofounded56 Applied Proteomics (API)57 with Dr. David Agus58, a leading oncologist and innovator in molecular medicine applications, to make proteomics-based biomarker discovery practical and productive59. 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 cancer60. API was named one of the 13 “fiercest medical devices and diagnostic companies” of 201361.

Applied Invention

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

Applied Invention is a partner and co-owner of The Dark Sky Company62, a weather forecasting technology company with consumer web and mobile applications63 as well as offerings for third-party developers and corporations.

Hillis is a prolific inventor, holding over 300 patents64, 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 processing65 66 67

The Long Now Foundation

In 1986, Danny Hillis expressed the alarm that society has a “mental barrier” of looking at the year 2000 as the limit of the future68. 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 Foundation69 70, which he co-founded with Stewart Brand71 and where he serves as co-chairman. A prototype of the Clock of the Long Now72 is on display at the London Science Museum. A full-scale prototype is being installed at a site inside a mountain in western Texas73.


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 science74, and the 1988 Ramanujan Award for his work in applied mathematics.

Hillis is a Member of the National Academy of Engineering75, a Fellow of the Association of Computing Machinery76, a Fellow of the International Leadership Forum, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences77.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


1 William (Danny) Hillis. At http://www.media.mit.edu/people/wdhillis

2 Grant, James. “New cancer research center to be based at USC”. At https://news.usc.edu/27467/New-Cancer-Research-Center-to-be-Based-at-USC/

3 “W. Daniel Hillis, Ph.D., Principal Investigator”. University of Southern California Physical Sciences — Oncology Center. At http://physics.cancer.gov/centers/UniversityofSouthernCalifornia.aspx

4 Mankin, Eric. “Applied Minds Co-Founder appointed to the Viterbi research faculty”. At http://viterbi.usc.edu/news/news/2009/applied-minds-co.htm

5 “Parallel Computing Pioneers: W. Daniel Hillis”. Parallel Computing Research Newsletter, Vol. 4, Issue 4, Fall 1996. At http://www.crpc.rice.edu/newsletters/fal96/pp.hillis.html

6 Scannell, Tim. “Micro-based turtle serves as mapping, teaching aid”. Computerworld 05 Jun 1978. Scanned on Google books: https://books.google.com/books?id=ICoe1vr9x3kC&pg=PA151&lpg=PA151&dq=hillis+terrapin#v=onepage&q=hillis%20terrapin&f=false

7 “Robot Turtle”. Personal Computing 17 Aug 1978. At https://archive.org/stream/PersonalComputing197808/Personal%20Computing%201978-08_djvu.txt

8 Rifkin, Glenn. “Marvin Minsky, pioneer in artificial intelligence, dies at 88”. New York Times 28 Jan 2016. At http://tech.mit.edu/V135/N38/minsky.html

9 Hillis, W.D. “Active touch sensing”. Master’s dissertation, MIT. At https://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/74735/08254739-MIT.pdf?sequence=2

10 Hillis, W.D. “A high resolution imaging touch sensor”. International Journal of Robotics Research June 1982 vol. 1 no. 2 33-44.

11 Dewdney, A.K. “A Tinkertoy computer that plays tic-tac-toe”. Scientific American, Oct 1989. For purchase at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/computer-recreations-1989-10/ (At http://constructingmodernknowledge.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/TinkerToy-Computer-Dewdney-article.pdf)

12 “Tinkertoy Computer with Danny Hillis and Mitch Kapor”. http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/102630799

13 “Tinkertoy Computer”. http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/102622932

14 “Tinker Toy Computer”. MIT Museum. At http://museum.mit.edu/nom150/entries/1215

15 “Tinkertoy Computer”. Computer History Museum. At http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/X39.81

16 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connection_Machine

17 http://awards.acm.org/award_winners/hillis_4558874.cfm

18 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pattern_on_the_Stone

19 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinking_Machines_Corporation

20 “Stanford University announces the purchase of Thinking Machines' CM-5 Supercomputer System”, PR Newswire 27 May 1992. At http://www.thefreelibrary.com/STANFORD+UNIVERSITY+ANNOUNCES+THE+PURCHASE+OF+THINKING+MACHINES%27+CM-5...-a012179716

21“High Performance Computing & Seismic Imaging”. Stanford Exploration Project. At http://sepwww.stanford.edu/data/media/public/sep/biondo/HTML/Computing.html

22 Markoff, John. “Thinking Machines to file for bankruptcy”. New York Times 16 Aug 1994. At http://www.nytimes.com/1994/08/16/business/company-news-thinking-machines-to-file-for-bankruptcy.html

23 Markoff, John. “American Express to buy 2 top supercomputers”. New York Times, 30 Oct 1991. At http://www.nytimes.com/1991/10/30/business/business-technology-american-express-to-buy-2-top-supercomputers.html

24 Hillis, W. “Richard Feynman and the Connection Machine.” Physics Today 42(2), 78 (1999). At http://longnow.org/essays/richard-feynman-connection-machine/

25 Sergey Brin. Stanford University http://infolab.stanford.edu/~sergey/resume.html

26 “Danny Hillis named first member of Disney Fellows program”. HPC Wire. 17 May 1996. At https://www.hpcwire.com/1996/05/17/danny-hillis-named-first-member-of-disney-fellows-program/

27 Bronson, Po. “Disney Fellows.” Wired Mar. 1997: 199. http://www.wired.com/1997/03/disney-fellows/

28 Hafner, Katie. “Disney’s Wizards.” Newsweek 11 Aug. 1997: 48-51. http://www.newsweek.com/disneys-wizards-172346

29 Remnick, David. “The Next Magic Kingdom, Future Perfect.” The New Yorker 20 & 27 Oct. 1997: 210-214.

30 Saunders, Fenella. “A giant among robots”. Discover, 01 Mar 2001. At http://discovermagazine.com/2001/mar/featrobots

31 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Applied_Minds

32 Jardin, Xeni. "Applied Minds Think Remarkably." Wired.com, 21 June 2005. At http://archive.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2005/06/67951#

33 Kwan, Carissa. “Mayflower Test Satellite, Jointly Developed by Northrop Grumman and Applied Minds, Proves Successful During Recent SpaceX Mission.” Northrop Grumman: News Release: 11 May 2011. https://globenewswire.com/news-release/2011/05/11/446985/221694/en/Mayflower-Test-Satellite-Jointly-Developed-by-Northrop-Grumman-and-Applied-Minds-Proves-Successful-During-Recent-SpaceX-Mission.html

34 Sabbagh, Leslie. “Flying Blind in Iraq: U.S. Helicopters Navigate Real Desert Storms.” Popular Mechanics. 3 Oct. 2006. http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/a5540/4199189/

35 Tabor, Aimee. “New School Will Provide More Learning Opportunities.” The Casper Star-Tribune: Web. 5 Feb. 2007. http://trib.com/news/local/new-school-will-provide-more-learning-opportunities/article_346863f8-9de0-55b5-8dbd-7071d2767f49.html

36 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Modular_Datacenter

37 Markoff, John. “It’s a Shipping Container. No, It’s a Data Center in a Box.” The New York Times: 17 Oct. 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/17/technology/17sun.html?_r=0

38 Robertson, Jordan. “Sun Microsystems Unveils Data Center.” The Washington Post: 17 Oct. 2006. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/17/AR2006101700072.html

39 Waldrop, M. Mitchell. “Data Center in a Box.” Scientific American Aug. 2007: 90-93. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/data-center-in-a-box/

40 Malik, Om. “Sun’s Computing on Demand, Literally.” GigaOm. 17 Oct. 2006. https://gigaom.com/2006/10/16/suns-computing-on-demand-literally/

41 Markoff, John. “No Privacy in Your Cubicle?” Try an Electronic Silencer.” The New York Times 30 May 2005: 1-2. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/30/technology/no-privacy-in-your-cubicle-try-an-electronic-silencer.html

42 Scanlon, Jessie. “Keep It Down! I’m Trying to Work.” Wired July 2005: 28. http://www.wired.com/2005/07/keep-it-down-im-trying-to-work/

43 Kramer, Melody Joy. “Babble: Innovations of the Year.” Esquire Dec. 2005. http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a2298/esq1205babble/

44 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cone_of_Silence_%28device%29

45 Hall, Peter. “Push-Button Rewiring.” Metropolis June 2007: 112-116. http://www.metropolismag.com/June-2007/Push-Button-Rewiring/

46 Kimes, Mina. “Herman Miller’s High-Wire Act.” Fortune 159.11 (25 May, 2009): 18.

47 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convia

48 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. “At http://pdfpiw.uspto.gov/.piw?Docid=7724242

49 Ribero, J. “US patent office rejects claims of Apple 'pinch to zoom' patent”. PC World, Jul 29, 2013. At http://www.pcworld.com/article/2045461/us-patent-office-rejects-claims-of-apple-pinch-to-zoom-patent.html

50 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaweb

51 Markoff, John. “Start-up aims for database to automate web searching”. New York Times 09 Mar 2007. At http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/09/technology/09data.html

52 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freebase

53 Mellor, Belle. “Sharing What Matters.” The Economist 7 June 2007: 15. At http://www.economist.com/node/9249171

54 Rubin, Courtney. “Metaweb acquired by Google”. Inc. July 2010. At http://www.inc.com/news/articles/2010/07/google-acquires-metaweb.html

55 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge_Graph

56 Vance, Erik. “The Odd Couple.” Nature 22 Nov. 2012: S52-S54.

57 https://www.appliedproteomics.com/

58 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Agus

59 Buchen, Lizzie. "Crunching Cancer with Numbers." New Scientist. 13 July 2010.

60 Pogorelc, D. “Applied Proteomics lands $28M for diagnostics that spot disease by capturing protein activity”. MedCity News, 20 Aug 2013. At http://medcitynews.com/2013/08/applied-proteomics-gets-28m-for-lab-tests-that-look-at-protein-activity-to-spot-disease-sooner/

61 FierceMedicalDevices' 2013 Fierce 1. At http://www.fiercebiotech.com/special-report/fiercemedicaldevices-2013-fierce-15

62 http://blog.forecast.io/dark-sky-has-a-new-owner/

63 http://www.theverge.com/2015/4/24/8489201/best-apple-watch-apps-so-far

64 US Patent Office search results show 321 patents on 07 Dec 2016. At http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO2&Sect2=HITOFF&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsearch-bool.html&r=0&f=S&l=50&TERM1=hillis%2C+w.+daniel&FIELD1=INNM&co1=AND&TERM2=&FIELD2=&d=PTXT

65 Patent 5212773 http://pdfpiw.uspto.gov/.piw?PageNum=0&docid=05212773

66 Leiserson, C.. et al. “The Network Architecture of the Connection Machine CM-5”. SPAA '92 Proceedings of the fourth annual ACM symposium on Parallel algorithms and architectures. Pages 272-285. At http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=141883&CFID=650228264&CFTOKEN=15856620

67 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAID

68 http://longnow.org/about/

69 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Now_Foundation

70 http://longnow.org/

71 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stewart_Brand

72 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clock_of_the_Long_Now

73 http://longnow.org/clock/

74 http://awards.acm.org/award_winners/hillis_4558874.cfm

75 “Dr. William Daniel Hillis”. National Academy of Engineering. At https://www.nae.edu/MembersSection/MemberDirectory/30324.aspx

76 http://awards.acm.org/award_winners/hillis_4558874.cfm

77 “List of Active Members by Class”. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Page 12. At https://www.amacad.org/multimedia/pdfs/classlist.pdf