Professor Marvin Minsky dies at 88: What a noble mind is here o’erthrown

As a prospective and actual graduate student in MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory during the years 1974-1976, it is difficult to convey the draw and the incisiveness of Minsky’s mind. As an undergraduate in Physics with a very keen interest in computing and programming, I was drawn to Professor Minsky’s ideas in articles like his “Steps Towards Artificial Intelligence” (see also). I had attended a lecture by him at MIT, as a high school student, asking him afterwards (paraphrase),

Would your studies lead to a set of principles for describing intelligence? How would you define ‘intelligence’?

Minsky replied:

You don’t define something unless it is a microcomponent of a theory (not the object of the theory itself).

His recorded thoughts, analysis, and the work of his students and colleagues convinced me to choose Artificial Intelligence as a subject in which to pursue graduate study, the alternative being Astronomy and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (“SETI”). I applied, and become a graduate student member of MIT-AI in September 1974.

Professor Minsky was brilliant and amazingly child-like, something he insisted was a common if not essential aspect of anyone who retained a notion of being a genius. During seminars at MIT AI, where I learned the vicious and gentle patterns and mannerisms of scholarly debate, he was almost always in attendance, and almost always silent, leaving the discussion to people like Carl Hewitt and Gerry Sussman and others.

He had a singular vision of how intelligence could be embodied in machines, and, disappointed as he was in the paths and progress of this goal’s pursuit, continued to investigate and record. I have read his book, Perceptrons, written with Seymour Papert, possibly a dozen times, and learned a great deal from it. It is ironic, then, that today’s deep learning networks are descendents of perceptrons. Still, it is not at all clear to me that the technology of deep learning has successfully overcome most of the criticisms Minsky and Papert assigned to them. They also gave me a deep respect for original theoretical work, including derivations and theorems, an organic respect much deeper than I got from my studies in maths and Physics.

I also was, in part, inspired to convert to Judaism as I did later, because of Professor Minsky’s example, even if that proved to be just another of my extended explorations of religion.

There are many things about Marvin Minsky even his students and fans don’t know, such as he was, for a time, a Fellow of Walt Disney Imagineering.

On a personal level, Minsky’s Society of Mind helped me through many tough emotional episodes, those requiring something like 15 years of psychological counselling. It is interesting that Professor Minsky foresaw a world where people could systematically replace their failing biological components with artificial ones, and eventually cheat death.

I will say I miss the idea of Professor Minsky being in the world. But, knowing, I think his sentiments, and his lessons, he would embrace nothing other than his death as being the proper and natural order of things. In that sense, while his memories and knowledge will evaporate, Marvin Minsky is never gone. And, as an inspiration for a physical materialist like myself, that’s sayin’ somethin’.

Update: 2016-01-26

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This entry was posted in artificial intelligence, machine learning, Marvin Minsky', neural nets, perceptrons, Seymour Papert. Bookmark the permalink.

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