Thinking Machines – two perspectives

I came across a nice essay by Daniel Hillis on Richard Feynman‘s involvement with Thinking Machines. He has shared quite a few interesting points on the development of the first Connection Machine (a supercomputer), and also on the contribution of Feynman to the project. They were also involved in finding actual applications for the very powerful machines, and explored a variety of fields:

In retrospect I realize that in almost everything that we worked on together, we were both amateurs. In digital physics, neural networks, even parallel computing, we never really knew what we were doing. But the things that we studied were so new that no one else knew exactly what they were doing either. It was amateurs who made the progress.

The essay is a very good read, though a bit technical in some parts. It also sheds some light on the drive behind the founders. However, things seem to have gone really astray in the 90s with the eventual bankruptcy in 1994.

This brings me to the other article on Thinking Machines that I read recently which was on the interview process towards the last stages of the corporation.

… The project was a bit abstract, so I asked how it could be applied for business computing purposes. He scrunched his nose and scoffed at the very notion that I’d ask such a question.

As it turned out, Andrew wasn’t the only non-believer. Just as DARPA was about to send more barrel-loads of cash to Thinking Machines, The Wall Street Journal rained on their “subsidized sales” parade. That led to an embarrassed Bush I administration, which led towards an end of support from daddy.

With the impressively inept Sheryl Handler at the helm — the CEO who prioritized things like publishing a cookbook with recipes from their cafeteria instead of, say, trying to sell their increasingly useless Connection Machine — Thinking Machines quickly sank and filed for bankruptcy a short two years later.

I guess it shows how things can go downhill for a corporation unless there are some real world applications for its products. It is quite ironical in this case, as the founding engineers seem to have thought of quite a number of applications (highly specialised though), but by the time the second article, the employees seem to have very little clue as to the machine’s real world usage. I wonder what happened in the decade in between (possible explanation).

Interestingly, the wikipedia page for Thinking Machines lists both the essay and the article.


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