Have had a very productive couple of days recently on the book, talking at length with various folks who in one way or another have very unique views on the search world. Before I get to Tim Koogle, who I spoke to this morning, or Shana Fisher and Geoff Yang (yesterday afternoon), I wanted to talk about my visit with Danny Hillis.
On Tuesday I flew down to LA to visit with Danny, who founded Thinking Machines. After that he became an imagineer at Disney for five or so years (“The best ‘real job’ you can have,” he quipped). Danny has a million great ideas and is something of a polymath. He recently founded Applied Minds as a way to put that skill to work (he partnered with Bran Ferren, himself a scary smart polymath).
Danny has a lot of things to say about search, it’s an area he finds rich in implications, in particular as it relates to some of the long-term projects he’s involved in, such as the Clock of the Long Now. We spent some time riffing on the future of search, and its current limitations, but … I get ahead of myself. What I really thought was incredible was the playground Danny and Bran have created for themselves at Applied Minds.
You pull up to Applied Minds unimpressed. It’s in an industrial area of Glendale (who knew there even were industrial areas of Glendale?) – windowless one-story warehouses with nameplates like “Airfoil Distribution, Ltd” or “Light Plumbing Fixture Manufacturing, Inc.” Once inside the non-descript edifice, you’re greeted by a low-ceilinged version of an internet start up – the requisite espresso maker, late-modern furniture, flat-screen displays, etc. But really, nothing worth writing home about. In fact, the place felt a bit cramped and claustrophobic.
That all changed once Danny came out to meet me. After chit chatting for a few minutes, he took me to a small room – no wider than my outstretched arms – at the far end of which stood one of those classic red English phone booths. We stepped inside – a bit cramped – and Danny lifted the receiver and dictated a passphrase of some sort. Presto – the rear wall of the booth opened, and we stepped into – nerdvana.
From a cramped phone booth into massive pure-white-lit space two-stories high, adorned with all manner of things strange and beautiful. Over to one side stood the Terminator-like skeleton of a forty-foot dinosaur, it’s 15-foot pneumatic legs gleaming and exposed. Nearly blending into the walls, itself painted movie-set white, was a tricked out Hummer-like RV refitted as a communications/command center – complete with built-in kitchen and bedroom. The space was a great big project lab, with happy geeks combing over various assemblages of wiring, motors, processors and plans like ants on a summer picnic. It’s Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for geeks.
Applied Minds works this way: Bram and Danny and any number of partners contract with Very Large Companies or Organizations to think outside the box and come up with solutions to problems they might have. The dinosaur, for example, was a solution to Disney’s problem of overlong lines for its rides (solution: make the non-ride portions of the park more interesting by having dinosaurs roaming the streets…). Danny and Bram have, in essence, created a lab where they get paid to think orthogonal to a problem, and invent/design/prototype just about any kind of solution they can dream up. I toured at least four massive warehouses full of projects (and they have more buildings up in SF), many of which I am bound to not report upon, but all followed this basic ethic: let’s imagine a new way to approach what otherwise is an intractable/frustrating/unglamorous business problem. Clients include GM, Herman Miller, and many others, including some defense contractors. The company employs a studio model, with only 50 full time staffers, but hundreds involved at any given time on dozens of projects.
So one can imagine when Danny and I did sit down to talk about search, we’d have an interesting conversation. Besides the fact that his designs for Thinking Machines are now de facto standards for platforms like Google, we ranged from his idea of Aristotle, a Primer like AI tutor, to creating an economy of ideas through a new kind of search infrastructure. It’s fun to live in the future for a while, after so much reporting in the past and present.
For the details of our talk, well, the book is coming along slowly but surely…