Marvin Minsky, computing pioneer, cognitive scientist, and a founding father of artificial intelligence known for his relentless ambition and forward thinking, died in late January of this year at age 88, leaving a legacy.
Minsky lived his life on the cutting edge of computer technology, trailblazing the path to discovery and embracing humor in his quest to elucidate the mysteries of the human brain in order to make better machines.
He worked alongside collaborators who were also revolutionizing their fields like Claude Shannon, Ed Fredkin, Richard Feynman, Isaac Asimov, John Von Neumann, Arthur C. Clarke, and Seymour Papert, and he brought up swaths of students who would become well-known in their own right, like Ray Kurzweil, Ivan Sutherland, K. Erik Drexler, and Manuel Blum.
Before the internet or personal computers existed as we know them, Minsky was sitting in a laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) surrounded by computers and machines rigged with screens and mechanical arms, machines that could operate doors, elevators, and remotely-controlled robots (as documented in a 1981 profile in The New Yorker). He was also a consultant on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey, (read the 2007 Discover Magazine Q&A with Minsky).
But well before that, Minsky was already paving the way for future artificial intelligence research. In 1951 he invented the first wired neural network learning machine with Dean Edmonds, which he called SNARC (Stochastic Neural Analog Reinforcement Calculator). In 1952 he created the “ultimate machine” famous for being a useless machine whose only function is to turn itself off. In 1956, Minsky raised the bar on microscopic resolution and image quality after building the first Confocal Scanning Microscope which provided depth to microscopic images.
Beginning in 1959 Minsky’s involvement with John McCarthy and Seymour Papert in the Artificial Intelligence Project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led to the establishment of the Artificial Intelligence laboratory at MIT in 1970. With Minsky as director, the AI lab was a place to practice his multidimensional ways of thinking and eventually grew to become the epicenter of artificial intelligence research, now known as the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, (CSAIL).
Though he was active in many fields over the course of his life including chemistry, biology, philosophy, computer science, cognitive science, physics, and music, the only true mystery for Minsky was human intelligence. His life’s work was a mission to understand the intricacies of the human brain in order to gain insights he could apply to machine logic, finding parallels between the development of human intelligence and architectures for more intelligent machines.
For Minsky, the insights worked both ways, and he believed the quest to understand how to make machines behave like human brains offered a way to understand the human brain more completely than ever before. In remembering Minsky, MIT President L. Rafael Reif called Minsky of “that caliber of genius” who can “produce seminal work in more than one field” (see MIT’s obituary).
Path to Discovery
Born on August 9th, 1927 in New York City, Minsky received his formative education at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, Bronx High School of Science, and Phillips Academy. In 1944, at the age of 17, Minsky joined the US Navy during World War II. Upon his return, he attended Harvard University and received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1950.
Minsky’s path took at turn when a social occasion (in which he went to lunch with J Robert Oppenheimer, Kurt Gödel and Albert Einstein) led him to spend a year learning about Turing machines, this according to the Financial Times obituary (paywall). In 1951 he created his famous first neural network simulator, and by 1954 he graduated from Princeton University with his PhD in mathematics.
Although Minsky obtained his doctorate degree in mathematics, he began to explore the cross section between mathematics, philosophy, computing, and neuroscience at a Harvard Fellowship he was granted upon graduating from Princeton. It was this interdisciplinary exploration that led Minsky in 1958 to MIT, where he would stay for the next five decades.
While at MIT Minsky continued to imagine, create, and publish throughout the years. In 1972 he and Ed Fredkin built the Triadex Muse, a digital music synthesizer. He and Nicholas Negroponte co-founded the MIT Media Lab in 1985 and in 1988 a breakout project came with the publication of “The Society of Mind”. The work took on the arduous task of explaining the mind as “a collection of mechanisms” for solving problems.
The book is formatted in brief, one-page observations that connect ideas from physics, biology, social science, cognitive science, and developmental psychology to form a discussion about the reasons why one basic function like walking or carrying a cup might win out over another in the dance between the human mind and biology–human intelligence. [While some consider the work too philosophical and far removed from scientific analysis to be useful, few doubt the brilliance behind the theory and its impact on the way we understand human intelligence.] His seminal contribution is in combining the fields of psychology and computer science to advance the field of artificial intelligence.
Minsky’s work helped shape the paradigms that define artificial intelligence, but the scope of his influence spans beyond the quest for creating robots that are smarter than humans. A true polymath, he made serious contributions in teleoperation, virtual reality, imaging, science fiction, philosophy, and music.
In an interview just a few months before his death, Minsky still reveled in the giddy feeling of new discoveries and interesting machines built by people full of imagination. Talking with the MIT Technology Review, Minsky suggested that we should “get rid of big companies and go back to giving support to individuals who have new ideas…We should get a bunch of beginners and see what they can do and fire the experts.”
Visit the Web of Stories for a video of Minsky showing the first neural network machine and other videos of the pioneer talking about his work and life: http://www.webofstories.com/play/marvin.minsky/137
(Featured images: Wikimedia Commons)
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