Marvin Minsky

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Marvin Minsky

Marvin Lee Minsky (1927–2016)
Marvin Lee Minsky (1927–2016)

The American mathematician Marvin Lee Minsky (1927–2016) was a founding figure in the area of artificial intelligence (AI). He is the author of several important texts concerning AI and philosophy, and built, in 1951, the first randomly wired neural network learning machine (SNARC), the confocal microscope (1957), the first head-mounted graphical display (1963), robotic devices (1963, 1967), and a musical synthesizer (1970).

Stochastic Neural Analog Reinforcement Calculator (SNARC) was a neural net machine, considered one of the first attempts in the field of artificial intelligence, a device that emulated the complex web of nerves in the human brain to learn from its own mistakes. In the summer of 1951, prompted by a letter from Minsky, the American psychologist, and founder of cognitive science George Armitage Miller (1920-2012) gathered the funding for the project from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research with the work to be carried out by Minsky, who was then a graduate student in mathematics at Princeton University.

The SNARC machine itself is a randomly connected network of approximately 40 Hebb synapses. These synapses each have a memory that holds the probability that the signal comes in one input and another signal will come out of the output. There is a probability knob that goes from 0 to 1 that shows this probability of the signals propagating. If the probability signal gets through, a capacitor remembers this function and engages a “clutch”. At this point, the operator will press a button to give a reward to the machine, then a large motor starts and there is a chain that goes to all 40 synapse machines, checking if the clutch is engaged or not. As the capacitor can only “remember” for a certain amount of time, the chain only catches the most recent updates of the probabilities.

The neural net idea was unique in that it did not require programmers to specify every line of code, but could be “grown” and trained in an organic way. In 1969 Minsky, along with Seymour Papert, wrote the book Perceptrons, the first systematic study of parallelism in computation and a classical work on threshold automata networks.

Biography of Marvin Minsky

Left: Marvin Minsky as a young boy (c. 1937). Right: Marvin at Bronx High School of Science
Left: Marvin Minsky as a young boy (c. 1937). Right: Marvin at Bronx High School of Science (c. 1943)

Marvin Lee Minsky was born on 9 August 1927 in New York City, to the Jewish family of Dr. Henry Minsky (1895-1954) and Fannie Judith (nee Reiser) Minsky (1902-1985), whose families were natives of Russian Empire. Henry was an eye surgeon, who was chief of ophthalmology at Mount Sinai Hospital, and Fannie was an artist, social activist, and Zionist. Marvin had an elder sister, Charlotte (1925-1983).

Marvin had prodigious intellectual gifts and was educated in progressive schools in New York, where he attended the Ethical Culture School in Manhattan, Fieldston School in Riverdale, Bronx High School of Science, and later the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. After serving in the US Navy in the Second World War (1944-45), he earned a degree in mathematics in 1950 from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, then in 1954 got his doctorate on learning machines, at Princeton University in New Jersey. When Minsky finished his Ph.D., the eminent mathematicians John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, and Claude Shannon all recommended him for appointment as a junior fellow at Harvard.

Minsky wearing an interactive glove in the MIT robotics lab
Minsky wearing an interactive glove in the MIT robotics lab

When his Harvard fellowship ended in 1958, Minsky accepted an appointment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he would remain on faculty for the rest of his life. In his first year at MIT, Minsky founded the AI Lab, which quickly became a leading center for artificial Intelligence research. The lab popularized the idea of the digital sharing of information, giving rise to the open-source movement. The lab conducted much of the initial work on the ARPANET, which ultimately evolved into the Internet of today.

Marvin Minsky was the recipient of numerous honors and awards, among them the Turing Award, the IEEE Computer Society’s Computer Pioneer Award, and the Franklin Institute’s Benjamin Franklin Medal.

On 30 July 1952, Minsky married Gloria Anna Rudisch (1926-), a prominent Boston pediatrician, and they had three children—the twins Henry and Juliana, and Margaret. Gloria recalled her first conversation with Marvin: “He said he wanted to know about how the brain worked. I thought he is either very wise or very dumb. Fortunately, it turned out to be the former.” Minsky and his wife often welcomed students into their home, where several pianos stood as a reminder that Minsky was a musical prodigy, able to improvise fugues in the baroque style of J.S. Bach.

In 1985, Minsky published a book, The Society of Mind, stating that intelligence emerges from the cooperative behavior of multiple agents, none of which is intelligent. Then, in 2006, Minsky published The Emotion Machine, in which he noted, that concepts such as intelligence are ‘suitcase words’, into which one can stuff multiple meanings. He wrote that our resourceful intelligence arises from multiple ways of thinking on multiple levels, and from multiple ways of representing knowledge. Minsky argued that “somewhere down the line, some computers will become more intelligent than most people,” but that it was very hard to predict how fast progress would be. He cautioned that an artificial superintelligence designed to solve an innocuous mathematical problem might decide to assume control of Earth’s resources to build supercomputers to help achieve its goal, but believed that such negative scenarios are “hard to take seriously” because he felt confident that AI would go through a lot of testing before being deployed.

Marvin Minsky died on 24 January 2016 of a cerebral hemorrhage in Boston, Massachusetts, at the age of 88.