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In Memoriam: Marvin Minsky 1927-2016

Artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky.

Marvin Minsky.

Credit: Louis Fabian Bachrach

Marvin Minsky, an American scientist working in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) who co-founded of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) AI laboratory, wrote several books on AI and philosophy, and was honored with the ACM A.M. Turing Award, passed away on Sunday, January 24, at the age of 88.

According to Minsky’s family, his cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage.

Born in New York City, Minsky attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, the Bronx High School of Science, and Phillips Academy, before entering the U.S. Navy in 1944. After leaving the service, he attended Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1950. He then went to Princeton University, where he built the first randomly wired neural network learning machine, the Stochastic Neural Analog Reinforcement Calculator (SNARC), before earning his Ph.D in mathematics there in 1954.

Doctorate in hand, Minsky was admitted to the group of Junior Fellows at Harvard, where he invented the confocal scanning microscope for thick, light-scattering specimens, decades in advance of the lasers and computer power needed to make it useful; today, it is in wide use in the biological sciences.

He began teaching at MIT in 1958; the following year, he joined John McCarthy in founding the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (today known as the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL).

At the time of his death, he was professor emeritus at CSAIL and at the MIT Media Lab, which he also helped found. 

Beginning in the early 1950s, Minsky worked on computational ideas to characterize human psychological processes, and produced theories on how to endow machines with artificial intelligence. Work in the new laboratory included attempts to model human perception and intelligence, as well as efforts to build practical robots.

Minsky had argued that space exploration, undersea mining, and nuclear safety would be vastly simpler with manipulators driven locally by intelligent computers or remotely by human operators. He foresaw microsurgery could be done by surgeons who work at one end of a telepresence system at a comfortably large scale, while at the other end machines do the chore required at the small scale where tiny nerve bundles are knitted together or clogged blood vessels are reamed out. In support of this, Minsky designed and built mechanical hands with tactile sensors, and an arm with 14 degrees of freedom.

In the late 1960s, Minsky began to work on perceptrons, machine learning algorithms that capture some of the characteristics of neural behavior. Minsky, working with Seymour Papert,  showed what perceptrons could and could not do; together they wrote the book Perceptrons, which is considered a foundational work in the analysis of artificial neural networks.

Minsky and Papert continued their collaboration for decades, bringing together Minsky’s computational ideas with Papert’s understanding of developmental psychology. They worked both together and individually to develop theories of intelligence and radical new approaches to childhood education using Logo, the educational programming language developed by Papert and his colleagues. Together, they developed the first Logo "turtle" robot.

Minsky’s best-known work from the mid-1970s centers on a family of ideas he called the Theory of Frames. In his paper "A Framework for Representing Knowledge," Minsky wrote, "the ingredients of most theories both in Artificial Intelligence and in Psychology have been on the whole too minute, local, and unstructured to account–either practically or phenomenologically–for the effectiveness of common-sense thought." He tried to address those issues  by considering several theories of intelligence, then "pretending to have a unified, coherent theory" based on his proposal to label data-structures in memory as frames and considering how frames must work, individually and in groups. Frames have become the primary data structure of AI Frame Languages, and are a major part of knowledge representation and reasoning schemes.

Minsky and Papert also developed what came to be called The Society of Mind theory, which attempts to explain how intelligence could be a product of the interaction of non-intelligent parts. Minsky said his greatest source of ideas about the theory came from his work in trying to create a machine that uses a robotic arm, a video camera, and a computer to build with children's blocks. In 1986, Minsky published The Society of Mind, a book on the theory written for a general audience.

Minsky also wrote about the potential for communication with extraterrestrials ("Communication with Alien Intelligence"), offering arguments to support the notion that we will be able to converse with aliens on our first meeting "because we’ll both think in similar ways."

In 2006, Minsky published The Emotion Machine, a book critiquing theories of how human minds work and suggesting alternative theories, often replacing simple ideas with more complex ones. He wrote that our resourceful intelligence arises from many ways of thinking (search, analogy, divide and conquer, elevation, reformulation, contradiction, simulation, logical reasoning, and impersonation) that are spread across many levels of mental activity (instinctive reactions, learned reactions, deliberative thinking, reflective thinking, self-reflective thinking, and self-conscious emotions).

Minsky was awarded the fourth-ever ACM A.M. Turing Award  (known as the "Nobel Prize of Computing") in 1969, "for his central role in creating, shaping, promoting, and advancing the field of Artificial Intelligence." He also received the Japan Prize in 1990, the IJCAI Award for Research Excellence in 1991, and the Benjamin Franklin Medal from the Franklin Institute in 2001. In 2006, he was inducted as a Fellow of the Computer History Museum, and in 2011, Minsky was inducted into IEEE Intelligent Systems' AI's Hall of Fame for the "significant contributions to the field of AI and intelligent systems." In 2014, Minsky was presented with the Dan David Prize in the field of "Artificial Intelligence, the Digital Mind." He was also awarded the 2013 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Information and Communication Technologies category.

During his tenure, Minsky served as doctoral advisor to, among others:

  • Manuel Blum, recipient of the A.M. Turing Award in 1995 "in recognition of his contributions to the foundations of computational complexity theory and its application to cryptography and program checking."
  • Daniel Bobrow, developer of the TENEX operating system, president of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, chair of the Cognitive Science Society, editor-in-chief of the journal Artificial Intelligence, and part of the team that received the 1992 ACM Software Systems Award for their work on the Interlisp programming environment.
  • Danny Hills, co-founder of supercomputer manufacturer Thinking Machines Corporation, Judge Widney Professor of Engineering and Medicine at the University of Southern California, and recipient of the ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award in 1989 "for his basic research on parallel algorithms and for the conception, design, implementation, and commercialization of the Connection Machine."
  • Gerald Jay Sussman, Panasonic Professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT, recipient of ACM’s Karl Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award in 1990.
  • Ivan Sutherland, recipient of the A.M. Turing Award in 1988 "for his pioneering and visionary contributions to computer graphics, starting with Sketchpad, and continuing after," and the Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology in 2012 for "pioneering achievements in the development of computer graphics and interactive interfaces."

Patrick Henry Winston, Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science at MIT, recalled, "Many years ago, when I was a student casting about for what I wanted to do, I wandered into one of Marvin's classes. Magic happened. I was awed and inspired. I left that class saying to myself, ‘I want to do what he does.’ I have been awed and inspired ever since. Marvin became my teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend. I will miss him at a level beyond description. "

Winston added, "Marvin's impact was enormous. People came to MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory from everywhere to benefit from his wisdom and to enjoy his deep insights, lightning-fast analyses, and clever jokes. They all understood they were witnessing an exciting scientific revolution. They all wanted to be part of it."

Moshe Vardi, Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering and director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology at Rice University, as well as editor-in-chief of Communications, said, "Minsky was out-of-the-box thinker, which he demonstrated already as a graduate student, when he built the most useless machine ever, which did nothing but switch itself off."

ACM president Alexander L. Wolf said Minsky "began his work at a time when computing was like a newly discovered continent, vast and unexplored. The many paths he blazed were important, not only because they were first but because they led us to a better place."

Lawrence M. Fisher is Senior Editor/News for ACM Magazines.


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