Jul 1, 2011Science and Technology
Danny Hillis—Inventor, Innovator, High Priest of the Long Now

Take a look around just about any American city and it’s pretty clear we’re a “culture of Now.” Here in Los Angeles, it’s more apparent than in most. From where I sit writing this, I see a 99-Cent store and half a dozen restaurants, coffee shops and tattoo parlors, none of which looks likely to survive even a moderately strong earthquake.

Even outside our cities, we don’t build for the long term. Neither do other countries around the world. And by long term, I mean thousands of years. Our sturdiest buildings and monuments will last no more than a few centuries at best. Where are our monuments to distant future generations? Where are our Stonehenges? Our pyramids of Giza?

One man is trying to change that—or at least encourage a different way of thinking about our world and the time scale we use to do so. Call it an effort to foster a “culture of the Long Now.” That man is American inventor, entrepreneur and author W._Daniel_Hillis" target=_blank>Danny Hillis, who made headlines in the tech press a week ago when WIRED magazine ran a story on one of his many brainchildren—a plan to build a 10,000-year clock, also known as the “Clock of the Long Now.” After receiving funding of $42 million from Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, the clock project is finally underway on a remote Texas ridge overlooking Bezos' space startup, Blue Origin.

The millennium clock is no ordinary timepiece. When completed, a few years from now if all goes to plan, it will tick just once a year, have a century hand that advances once every 100 years, and a cuckoo that comes out on the millennium, says Hillis, 54, an MIT grad and founder of a number of companies including Glendale, Calif.-based Applied Minds. The hope is the clock will survive the ravages of time and still be around for humanoids thousands of years from now to look at and scratch their heads over—much as we do over Stonehenge or the great pyramids (which have been around less than 5,000 years).

The Clock of the Long Now has been an obsession of Hillis’ since at least 1995 when he first proposedthe concept in another WIRED edition. Since then, he and others have built prototypes and created a nonprofit, the Long Now Foundation, to work on the clock and promote long-term thinking. But the clock is just one of many ideas to bubble up from Hillis’ intensely creative mind—a fire hydrant of intellectual property that has led him to innovate in worlds as far apart as supercomputing, cancer research and physics.

Since earning his Ph.D. at MIT, Hillis has run up a résumé that includes co-founding supercomputing company Thinking Machines, working in R&D at The Walt Disney Company, and starting Applied Minds. Employees at the firm apply their minds to solving a wide variety of problems, providing technology and consulting services to firms in an array of industries, and spinning off companies here and there.

Case in point, Freebase, described as an “open, shared database of the world's knowledge,” which was recently acquired by Google. Another spinoff, Touch Table, makes large, interactive touch-screens of the kind seen on election nights on CNN. Applied Minds inventions have been licensed by a Who’s Who of Fortune 500 companies, from Sun and Intel to Northrup Grumman and Herman Miller. NASA even contracted with the company to help design and build a mockup of a new lunar lander.

As if that weren’t enough, Hillis also innovates in the field of cancer research. Teaming up with Dr. David Agus, a professor of Medicine and Engineering at the University of Southern California, he created another Applied Minds subsidiary called Applied Proteomics, which focuses on developing protein analysis machines for early-stage cancer detection. Hillis shared his thoughts on the topic at a TED lecture last fall.

For all that, Hillis considers the Clock of the Long Now his most important—if least commercial—project. Earlier this year, builders in Texas kicked off construction by drilling a horizontal access tunnel into the base of the ridge. Next, according to WIRED, they’ll drill a 500-foot pilot straight down to the access tunnel from the top of the ridge, before carving out a tall vertical shaft by drilling up from the bottom with a 12-foot, 7-inch bit. Into this shaft, they’ll carve a spiral staircase using a 2.5-ton movable robotic arm with a giant stonecutting saw. The clock itself will be installed deep inside the shaft. For more details about the undertaking, including how visitors can access the clock, check out the website Bezos launched last week on the topic.

According to WIRED, Bezos hopes building the clock will change the way humanity thinks about time, encouraging our distant descendants to take a longer view than we have. The clock will outlive the United States as well as other civilizations and systems of government that have yet to dawn, he says.

Hillis told WIRED that he considers the clock even more important than his work on cancer. He said it will get people thinking about what the world might look like in 10,000 years, whether the country will still be here, what the climate will be like, what kinds of tools people will be using, whether our cities will look the same. And when you start thinking that way, you open up a whole new field of thought, he said.

Sounds like the stuff of innovation to me.

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