DANNY HILLIS: The Biological Connection

Clearly the organizing principle of the brain is parallelism. It's using massive parallelism. The information is in the connection between a lot of very simple parallel units working together. So if we built a computer that was more along that system of organization, it would likely be able to do the same kinds of things the brain does. ---Danny Hillis

It's hard to imagine how two scientific cultures could be more antagonistic. Computer science grows out of mathematics, physics, and engineering, where reduction to simple basic principles results in the best designs and most penetrating insights. Modern biology grows out of observing and at times manipulating nature, where complexity presents constant surprises and efforts at reduction usually founder. In their daily work, computer scientists issue commands to meshes of silicon and metal in air-conditioned boxes; biologists feed nutrients to living cells in petri dishes. Computer scientists consider deviations to be errors; biologists consider deviations to be objects of wonder.

W. Daniel (Danny) Hillis practices both disciplines, drawing analogies from each to suggest progress in the other. He has imagined and then built computers modeled on the brain with thousands of processors, even when others predicted the effort would be a waste. His current design calls for more than 16,000 processors with applications ranging from seismic exploration to medical diagnosis. Hillis has turned his ``Connection Machine'' computer loose on biological theory and suggested evolutionary mechanisms that only the most daring biologists would consider.

Hillis was born in 1956 in Baltimore, Maryland. His father Bill served as an Air Force epidemiologist so the family moved frequently on the trail of hepatitis outbreaks.

I grew up all over the place. I lived in lots of different countries in central Africa --- Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire, and Kenya. We were typically out in the middle of the jungle so I was just taught at home.

His mother, Argye, did much of the teaching and was especially interested in mathematics. Hillis's father encouraged his interest in biology.

When lab equipment was being thrown out, I'd get glassware and use it in my lab. My best biological experiment was tissue culturing a frog heart and keeping the heart beating even while it was growing in the test tube. It was amazing to me that somehow they got together and did this coordinated activity even though they were just this homogenized mass of cells.

I guess early on my exposure was biological. But I would say that my natural inclination was towards engineering. So as a kid I was always building things.

Hillis started with Erector sets and blocks, but soon turned towards engines and robots. A book called Mike Mulligan's Steamshovel especially inspired him with the image that a little steamshovel could build a courthouse.

I always had this picture of how they converted the steamshovel to the heater at the bottom of the courthouse.

I somehow knew about computers too. I had a book called the How and Why Wonderbook of Robots --- it sort of talked about computers. It had lots of pictures of things that I now understand were mostly remote manipulators. I had a toy robot too, with a little man inside its head. The little man must have controlled the robot. I remember being fascinated by that concept of the little man inside your head.