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 … Next Page »

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