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The Mind of an Inventor

He built his first computer as a child. In his 20s, he had moved on to supercomputers. Now Danny Hillis is thinking of bigger things.

Wild mind: For Danny Hillis, invention is a life-long passion. And he’s good at it.
Ian White for Newsweek
Wild mind: For Danny Hillis, invention is a life-long passion. And he’s good at it.
Next Frontiers: The New Inventiveness

10/2/05: Steven Levy, NEWSWEEK Technology columnist; and Danny Hillis, Co-Chairman and Chief Technology Officer, Applied Minds, Inc.

By Steven Levy

Oct. 10, 2005 issue - Are inventors born, or are they made? Danny Hillis, who can't remember a time when he wasn't trying to make mind-blowing stuff, comes at the question, as usual, from an unexpected angle: potential inventors are un-made. "In some sense, every kid is inventive," he says. Without encouragement, a child's gleeful penchant for experimentation becomes endangered. "Kids invent things all the time until they get to school and adults tell them they shouldn't be wasting their time doing silly stuff," says Bran Ferren, Hillis's partner at Applied Minds, a company that invents amazing things for corporations like General Motors and institutions like the United States government.

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Fortunately for Hillis, his approach to the world is as fresh and playful as it was in the fourth grade, when he decided to build a robot out of paint cans, motors and light bulbs. The only difference is that his inventions are now aimed at starting new businesses, sustaining our soldiers and finding effective chemotherapy drugs.

"When people talk about Danny," says his friend Nathan Myhrvold, former head of Microsoft's research division, "they invariably wind up using the term "childlike wonder." At 49, Hillis is clearly an adult: he's a corporate executive and entrepreneur with a high government security clearance and a family of his own. But Hillis has never had to put out an APB for his inner child.

This becomes clear as soon as one crosses the threshold of Applied Minds, which sprawls over five flat buildings in an industrial area of Glendale, Calif. Behind an ordinary reception area, a door opens to a small room with only a red phone booth that could have been a prop in an Austin Powers movie. Hillis picks up the handset. "The blue moon jumps over the purple sky," he says, a twinkle in his eye acknowledging the corniness of the process. The wall behind him opens up to what geeks hope to see when they go to heaven: a vast room packed with brainiacs at work and exquisitely bizarre gizmos, ranging from a 13-foot skeleton of a robot dinosaur to a gleaming outback vehicle loaded with more communications gear than the trailers outside "Monday Night Football." It's a virtual museum of the future that rambles over several buildings.

At every turn, there's something to make your mouth hang open. Here's an array of data-display screens that looks like Han Solo's cockpit. There's a room populated with architectural mock-ups of "podules," fully wired instant buildings designed for stealthy government agencies (that's a picture of Donald Rumsfeld running a meeting in the full-scale version of the model sitting beneath it). Another area looks like Albert Einstein's chop shop, stuffed with half- disassembled Cadillac Escalade SUVs hooked up to exotic telemetry. Oops! Almost stepped on a six-foot-long robotic snake, slithering on the floor with scary fidelity to a pit viper.

Then you enter the darkened room with giant illuminated "touch tables." The surface of each is a high-resolution computer display showing a satellite-camera view of the world. By putting your hands on the table and spreading them, you zoom into a region, a city, a neighborhood. You can also slide your hand over the table to expose the view as captured at an earlier time. (It's possible to track, for instance, the progress of an Iranian nuclear facility, which now looks like a barren area but months ago was a giant hole being cleared for an underground complex.) At an adjacent device, called a "2.5-D Display," you can display any point on Earth and get its topographical information. Want to see more? The surface of the table rises—rises!—to create mountains, streams and gullies. In a few seconds there's a precise, model-train-tablelike model of the actual terrain.

The childlike wonder attributed to Hillis is contagious. His invention factory can make a corporate bigwig or a Pentagon official gurgle with excitement. "You walk in," says one client who has visited Glendale, "and realize that there's nothing not possible."

The more complicated question is what makes a great inventor possible. Though Hillis may not be a household word, he's definitely on the radar of those in the top ranks of science, government and business. He holds more than 70 patents, including a ground-breaking disk system for computers, a digital camera and a scheme to prevent forgery. He's won awards in computer science, mathematics and "the spirit of creativity." Nonetheless, he insists that "people tend to overestimate the individual inventor and underestimate the system that makes their inventions real."

If that's so, Hillis is a case where the system worked. He is a child not only of science but scientists: his father was an Air Force epidemiologist and his mother a biostatistician. Based in Baltimore, his family often wound up living in exotic locales like India and the Congo. Wherever they went Hillis tinkered—building things, dissecting them and even blowing them up. As an MIT sophomore he built a computer out of Tinkertoys. But as he hung out at the school's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (he actually moved into the basement of its famous leader Marvin Minsky), he became consumed with creating a machine that could think. "I want," he once said, "to build a computer that would be proud of me."

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