Danny Hillis on Boston vs. CA, Last Days With Minsky, and His New Co

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it isn’t that everyone in California is out for money first, but says “they are diluted out by” those who are. His own personal life had changed—his kids had grown, and he had divorced, so he had more flexibility in where he could live. “And so I just finally decided to go back to where I enjoyed the conversation.”

(Note: Y Combinator’s Paul Graham said similar things about Boston vs. Silicon Valley six years ago, when I interviewed him about why he stopped dividing his time between the two regions. But for Graham, the California culture was more attractive, while Hillis has had enough of it.)

Applied Invention

Hillis found a house in Cambridge, taking a visiting faculty position at MIT. He’s now helping build an East Coast branch of Applied Invention, which spun out of Applied Minds in 2014 and is based in Burbank, CA. He has temporary offices right now on Boylston Street in Boston but is about to relocate to the Central Square area in Cambridge—roughly between Harvard and MIT.  He says he isn’t ready to talk yet about details such as how many people he is looking to hire, or what fields they will be in.

“We’re here just because the talent is so great,” Hillis says. Not only the amount of talent, but the concentration of it. He tells the story of dinner parties that are easy to put together with leading experts in a field that would be hard to pull off in California because everyone is so spread out. And he says he likes to put books he has read in a box in front of his house for passers-by to take. He put one out on medieval metallurgy—and it was quickly gone. That would not have happened in California, he says. “First of all, nobody would be walking by—they would be driving. And the random people that were walking by my house would not be excited by the books that I had.”

Last Days with Marvin Minsky

One of the things Hillis cherishes about returning to Cambridge was the extra time he got to spend with Minsky, which he calls “one of the wonderful things about being back here.” Minsky passed away in January, but Hillis says that until close to his death, Minsky “was very much himself.” They had wonderful chats and would visit each other.

Hillis tells the story of when he first encountered Minsky at MIT in the mid-1970s. He wanted to meet the famous scientist but could never find Minsky in his office—until one day he went to Minsky’s basement lab at night, and there he was. Hillis says he was too shy to talk to the professor at first. But he found an error in one of Minsky’s circuit diagrams and pointed it out. Minsky told him to fix it, even before he asked Hillis his name. Hillis says he kept coming back to the lab to work on fixing the design, and “after a while, Marvin just kind of assumed that I worked for him.” That was the introduction. Later, Hillis says, “of course we became great friends” and Minsky supervised his doctoral thesis.

“He was my mentor.”

Photo of Danny Hillis by Asa Mathat

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