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

Xconomy Boston — 

Danny Hillis co-founded the famous parallel computing company Thinking Machines in 1983, while doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky. The company boasted one of the great corporate slogans of all time: “We’re building a machine that will be proud of us.”

Thinking Machines might not have worked out (its journey from high-flying star to bankruptcy is another story), but it marked a new era in computing and Hillis himself was established as a computing legend. In 1996, Hillis left for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. Later, he co-founded engineering and design company Applied Minds and several startups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, Metaweb Technologies (acquired by Google) in the San Francisco Bay Area, and his current passion, Applied Invention, which “partners with clients to create innovative products and services.”

But to bring things quickly up to the present day, here is a message for Boston innovators: you have built a culture Danny Hillis is proud of.

Hillis moved back to Cambridge, MA, last year after nearly two decades in California. He had personal and professional reasons for moving back east. But he was growing tired of what he describes as the overly money-fixated motivations in Silicon Valley in particular, and California more generally. He says one of the greatest assets of the Boston innovation culture is that people think of big problems to solve first and foremost—with making money a secondary motivation.

Hillis will be speaking next week at our Napa Summit (if you’d like a last minute invitation—write to Napa2016@xconomy.com). I caught up with him at a reception Xconomy held recently in Cambridge, and followed up with a phone call. His sentiment about Boston’s innovation culture really jumped out at me—in large part because I have long been tired of the laments of many here that Boston’s innovators should be more like their Cali counterparts. But it wasn’t the only interesting thing Hillis had to say about moving to Boston. He talked about opening East Coast digs for Applied Invention, and also about spending some last, wonderful time with Minsky, who passed away this January.

Following are a few take-homes from our conversation:

On the cultural differences between Boston and California

“I spent my childhood moving all over the world,” he says, referring to life with his father, an epidemiologist, who moved his family around Africa and also to India. Hillis came to Boston as an MIT student in 1974 “and liked it,” he relates. “I was introduced to the world of ideas and people changing the world.”

When he moved to California to work for Disney, he at once experienced differences in the tech culture—especially when it came to finding uses for the still-nascent Internet. “The underlying technology was mostly an East Coast invention, but the application of the Internet was mostly a West Coast thing,” he says. “One of the things that happened was that because so many people made money so quickly, the West Coast began to attract people kind of like the gold rush–people who were attracted to the idea of making money.” In short, there was a shift of sorts: The people who originally started building applications for the Internet in California wanted to change the world, he said. “Then they attracted a second kind of person, who I think saw this as an opportunity to get rich quickly.”

Hillis continued, “That slants the whole conversation of even the technical people. If you sit in a restaurant, at every table you hear people talking about their mezzanine financing, their strategy, their seed investment—it’s all about the financial side of things. Whereas you sit in a restaurant in Cambridge, you hear people talking about CRISPR (new gene-editing technology), and gene drive and deep learning methods. It’s about the idea.”

And that cultural difference, which he had seen first hand during visits to Boston, figured prominently into his decision to move back. Hillis stresses 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