Edward Fredkin

Once there are clearly intelligent machines, they won’t be interested in stealing our toys or dominating us, any more than they would be interested in dominating chimpanzees or taking nuts away from squirrels.
Edward Fredkin

Ed Fredkin working on PDP-1, c. 1960
Ed Fredkin working on PDP-1, c. 1960

Edward “Ed” Fredkin (1934–2023) was an American physicist, pilot, programmer, engineer, hardware designer, and businessman, whose work inside and outside academia has influenced major developments in computer science and in the foundation of theoretical physics for the past 50 years.

Although Fredkin’s initial focus was physics, he became involved with computers early in his life, in 1956 when he was sent by the Air Force, where he had trained as a jet pilot, to the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, where he worked on the SAGE computer. On completing his service in 1958, Ed was hired by Joseph Licklider to work at the research company Bolt Beranek & Newman (BBN). After seeing the PDP-1 computer prototype at the Eastern Joint Computer Conference in Boston, in December 1959, Fredkin recommended that BBN purchase the very first PDP-1 to support research projects. The new hardware was initially delivered with no software whatsoever, so Fredkin wrote a PDP-1 assembler language called FRAP (Free of Rules Assembly Program), and its first operating system (OS). He organized and founded the Digital Equipment Computer Users’ Society (DECUS) in 1961, and participated in its early projects. Working directly with Ben Gurley, the designer of the PDP-1, Ed designed significant modifications to the hardware to support time-sharing via the BBN Time-Sharing System. He invented and designed the first modern interrupt system, which Digital called the “Sequence Break”. He went on to become a contributor in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

In 1962, Fredkin founded Information International, Inc., an early computer technology company that developed high-precision digital-to-film scanners, as well as other leading-edge hardware. In 1968, he returned to academia, starting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a full professor despite the fact that he had never graduated from college. From 1971 to 1974, Fredkin was the Director of Project MAC at MIT. He spent a year at Caltech as a Fairchild Distinguished Scholar, working with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, and was a Professor of Physics at Boston University for six years.

Claude Shannon, John McCarthy, Ed Fredkin and Joe Weizenbaum, in 1968.
(left->) Claude Shannon, John McCarthy, Ed Fredkin and Joe Weizenbaum, in 1968

Fredkin was broadly interested in computation, including hardware and software. He was the inventor of the trie data structure, radio transponders for vehicle identification, the concept of computer navigation for automobiles, the Fredkin gate, and the Billiard-Ball Computer Model for reversible computing. He has also been involved in computer vision, chess, and other areas of Artificial Intelligence research.

Fredkin’s career and achievements had much of their motivation in digital philosophy, a particular type of pancomputationalism (pancomputationalists believe that biology reduces to chemistry which reduces to physics which reduces to the computation of information). His digital philosophy contains several fundamental ideas:
• Everything in physics and physical reality must have a digital informational representation.
• All changes in physical nature are consequences of digital informational processes.
• Nature is finite and digital.
• The traditional Judaeo-Christian concept of the soul has a counterpart in a static/dynamic soul defined in terms of digital philosophy.

Fredkin formulated also a paradox in philosophy (related to Buridan’s ass paradox), which concerns the negative correlation between the difference between two options and the difficulty of deciding between them. It reads: “The more equally attractive two alternatives seem, the harder it can be to choose between them—no matter that, to the same degree, the choice can only matter less.” Thus, a decision-making agent might spend the most time on the least important decisions. Developed further, the paradox constitutes a major challenge to the possibility of pure instrumental rationality.

Biography of Edward Fredkin

Edward Fredkin (1934-2023)
Edward Fredkin (1934-2023)

Edward “Ed” Fredkin was born on 2 October 1934 in Los Angeles, California. He was the youngest child of four (Hedda (Ed’s mother’s daughter by a previous marriage), Norman J. (b. 1928), Joan M. (b. 1933), and Ed) of Manuel S. Fredkin (24 Mar 1900-25 Apr 1988) and Rose Jacob (Spiegel) Fredkin (14 Sep 1898-22 Jun 1946). Manuel and Rose were Russian Jews (Manuel was born in S. Petersburg, while Rose was from Odessa), who emigrated to the USA in the early 1920s, met in Los Angeles, and married in 1927.

Rose was a concert pianist, although she did not perform professionally. She died from cancer when Ed was 11. Manuel was a businessperson but had lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash, and as a result, the family was relatively poor. At times Ed lived with other related families or with his eldest sister Hedda. Eventually, his father remarried (to Elsie Gabel), and he and his sister moved back in. As a child, Ed was both entrepreneurial and interested in science and how things work. He did various weekend and after-school things to earn money, eventually handling a large newspaper delivery route. At age 10 he bought chemistry supplies and made his own fireworks, which were then illegal in Los Angeles. Ed did poorly in school because he didn’t do homework.

In 1952 Ed graduated from John Marshall High School a semester early so that he could earn money for Caltech tuition and living expenses. Caltech later told him he had been admitted with the worst high school grades they had ever seen. He quit University partway through his sophomore year to enlist in the Air Force (his brother Norman was an Air Force pilot). Ed trained as a fighter pilot, but the military found his technical skills impossible to ignore and detailed him to the Lincoln Laboratory, a Pentagon-funded innovation hub at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1968, Fredkin joined the faculty at MIT as a full professor, an unheard-of leap in academia for someone without a bachelor’s degree. During his tenure there, he headed Project MAC, a research initiative that made advances in multiple-access computers, operating systems, and an AI precursor known as machine-aided cognition.

Fredkin was married twice. In 1957, while a lieutenant in the Army, he married Dorothy L. Abair, and they had three children—Susan, Sally, and Michael. In 1980 he married Joycelin Fredkin, and they had a son, Richard.

The undereducated genius, self-made millionaire, and self-made intellectual Ed Fredkin died in Brookline, Massachusetts, on 13 June 2023, at the age of 88.