Tamiko Thiel:

The Connection Machine

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The Connection Machines CM-1 and CM-2




30th anniversaries of the Connection Machines CM-1/CM-2:

CM-1 (1986-2016) - CM-2 (1987-2017) - Gordon Bell Prize for CM-2 (1989-2019)

The Connection Machine was the first commercial computer designed expressly to work on "artificial intelligence" problems simulating intelligence and life. A massively parallel supercomputer with 65,536 processors, it was the brainchild of Danny Hillis, conceived in the early 1980s while he was a doctoral student with Marvin Minsky at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, and built by his start-up Thinking Machines Corporation.

To celebrate the tri-decennial anniversaries of these machines I have started a project to investigate their legacy over the past 30 years. In the last five years, artificial intelligence has suddenly become the buzzword for radical changes in our world, from self-driving cars to the end of both blue-collar and white-collar work as we know it. What is real and what is hype, why did this seem to explode upon us so suddenly, and is there a backlink to the concepts and developments that came out of Thinking Machines in the 1980s-1990s?

>> Connection Machine 30th Anniversary Project

Danny Hillis interview, August 2016

The first of several exploratory interviews with former TMC
colleagues on the legacy of their work today. More soon!


1986: First commercial supercomputer modelled after the human brain

Departing from conventional computer architecture of the time, it was modeled on the structure of a human brain: rather than relying on a single powerful processor to perform calculations one after another, the data was distributed over the tens of thousands of simple 1-bit processors, all of which could perform calculations simultaneously, a configuration known as "SIMD" - Single Instruction Multiple Data.

What enabled the processors to communicate faster than previous SIMD designs was the internal network, a 12-dimensional boolean n-cube structure suggested by Nobel Prize physicist Richard Feynman, who spent his summers with us. Within this hardwired physical structure, the software data structures for communication and transfer of data between processors could change as needed depending on the nature of the problem. This meant the mutability of the connections between processors were more important than the processors themselves, hence the name "Connection Machine".

In 1989 the CM-2 won the prestigious Gordon Bell Prize as the fastest machine on earth, winning both the "absolute" performance prize as well as the price-performance prize.


Visual design:

From 1983-1985 I directed the packaging and industrial design of the Connection Machine CM-1 at Thinking Machines Corporation, working with industrial design consultants Allen Hawthorne and Gordon Bruce, and mechanical engineer consultant Ted Bilodeau. The CM-2, released in 1987, was a more advanced successor (including floating point hardware) contained in the same physical package.

The form of the machine was to express both its function and the passions of its creators: the dream of producing a "Machina Sapiens," a new genus of living, thinking machines. For a description of the design history, theory and concepts behind the visual design, see my article:

  • Thiel, Tamiko. "The Design of the Connection Machine," (pdf or html) in DesignIssues, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring 1994. pp. 5-18.

    This article was republished in the book "The Designed World: Images, Objects, Environments." Editors: Richard Buchanan, Dennis Doordan and Victor Margolin, 2010.

Yale Professor David Gelernter wrote his impressions of the machine in 1998:

"There are, of course, first-rate designers at work today. There have even been heroes of computer design: The CM-1 and CM-2 parallel supercomputers of the 1980s, designed by a team headed by Tamiko Thiel, were elegant and fascinating. At Yale, visitors stopped by the machine room often to admire the thing just as sculpture." Gelernter, David. "Beyond the Grey Box," ID Magazine, Vol. 45 #2, March/April 1998, page 60.


Existing machines:

At its height, I have heard there were various Connection Machines (CM-1, CM-2, CM-2a, CM-200 and the successor CM-5 in a completely different package design) at 70 installations around the world. The following machines have been preserved in museum collections:

  • Connection Machine CM-1: Computer History Museum, Mountain View, Silicon Valley, CA.
  • Connection Machine CM-2: Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Image: © Thinking Machines Corporation, 1986. Photo: Steve Grohe.

Text: © Tamiko Thiel