Marvin Minsky dies at 88

Marvin Minsky, a pioneer in artificial intelligence, died in a Boston hospital on Jan. 24 after a lengthy fight with cerebral hemorrhage. Minsky was born in New York City and attended the Bronx High School of Science. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1945 during the last two years of the Second World War. Later on, he earned a Bachelor of the Arts in mathematics from Harvard University in 1950 and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton University in 1954. After earning his Ph.D., Minsky was a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows from 1954 to 1957. He was affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1957 until his death.

Among his biggest accomplishments at MIT is the cofounding of the MIT Artificial Intelligence project, later known as the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Although best known for his writing and contributions to artificial intelligence, Minsky also worked in other fields, including cognitive psychology, mathematics, robotics and optics.

According to his MIT biography, he “designed and built some of the first visual scanners, mechanical hands with tactile sensors,” and built the first neural network simulator—also known as the SNARC—all of which would influence future robotic breakthroughs. Such neural networks are learned for their learning abilities through the “neurons” that exchange information.

In the early 1970s, Minsky collaborated with Seymour Papert, an MIT mathematician and computer scientist, to propose a theory called “The Society of Mind.” Simply put, “The Society of Mind” proposes that intelligence is a product of many processes, as opposed to the idea that intelligence is created through a single process. The two scientists argued that because different actions stem from different processes, there cannot be a “few ‘basic’ principles” set in place to define intelligence.

When writing on the theory in his book titled The Society of Mind, Minsky summarized “The Society of Mind” by stating, “’The Society of Mind’ is this scheme in which each mind is made of many smaller processes. These we’ll call agents. Each mental agent by itself can only do some simple thing that needs no mind or thought at all. Yet when we join these agents in societies … this leads to intelligence.”

In his blog post dedicated to Minsky, Stephen Wolfram, founder of Wolfram research and author of A New Kind of Science, described Minsky as “an eccentric.”

“The Marvin that I knew was a wonderful mixture of serious and quirky,” Wolfram wrote. “About almost any subject he’d have something to say, most often quite unusual. Sometimes it’d be really interesting; sometimes it’d just be unusual.”

When listening to Minsky’s 2003 TED Talk titled “Health and the human mind,” the scientist came off as witty, sometimes explaining statistics with enjoyable anecdotes, earning laughs from the audience. His answers were wise and thought-out, his speech casual. When he posed a question that he did not have an answer to, he was not ashamed to admit that he did not have an answer.

On Jan. 24 the scientific world lost a great man, but his influence will live on through those he influenced.