R.I.P. Marvin Minsky, 1927-2016

Marvin Minsky, 2008

Marvin Minsky, 2008

Marvin Minsky is one of the four or five scientists who invented the computer as we know it today. A polymath, a genius and an inspiring teacher, he had a role in most aspects of computer programming, and especially artificial intelligence. Every time you use Apple’s Siri or the similar programs on other smartphones, you are using technology based on the work of Minsky.

Minsky designed and built some of the first visual scanners. He developed mechanical hands with tactile sensors, advances that influenced modern robotics. In 1951 he developed Snarc,  the first randomly wired neural network learning machine. He invented and built the first confocal scanning microscope, an optical instrument with superior resolution and image quality still in wide use in the biological sciences.

He was a gifted, inspired pianist. He could sit at a piano and improvise complex baroque fugues.

He was a consultant for Stanley Kubrick on the 1968 science-fiction classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Kubrick visited Minsky seeking to learn about the state of computer graphics and whether Minsky believed it would be plausible for computers to be able to speak articulately by 2001.

But, most famously, in 1959, Minsky co-founded with John McCarthy the M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Project (later the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory). The A.I. Lab not only performed seminal research on computer intelligence; Minsky found that to develop computer intelligence he had to better understand human intelligence. He wrote two lay treatments of his thinking, The Emotion Machine and The Society of Mind. Both are interesting reads today, decades after they were published.

But Minsky’s greatest influence was as a teacher. The students in his graduate classes read like a Who’s Who of the intellect in the computer industry today. They include,

  • Alan Kay, a computer scientist
  • Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and futurist
  • Gerald Sussman, a prominent A.I. researcher and professor of electrical engineering at M.I.T.
  • Patrick Winston, who went on to run the AI Lab after Professor Minsky stepped aside.
  • Danny Hillis, an inventor and entrepreneur, co-founded Thinking Machines, a supercomputer maker in the early 1990s.

It was Sussman who gave us a memorable koan, that captures the flavor of Marvin Minsky:

In the days when Sussman was a novice, Minsky once came to him as he sat hacking at the PDP-6.
“What are you doing?”, asked Minsky.
“I am training a randomly wired neural net to play Tic-Tac-Toe,” Sussman replied.
“Why is the net wired randomly?”, asked Minsky.
“I do not want it to have any preconceptions of how to play”, Sussman said.
Minsky then shut his eyes.
“Why do you close your eyes?”, Sussman asked his teacher.
“So that the room will be empty.”
At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.

And now artificial intelligence research is just a bit emptier, too. Rest in peace, Marvin Minsky.