Marvin Minsky was a pioneer, someone who was thinking one step ahead of anyone else. He was a founding father when it comes to artificial intelligence and computer science. He was also one of the most thoughtful scientists, inspiring generations of computer scientists.
He died on January 24 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
After studying mathematics at Harvard and Princeton, Minsky joined the MIT faculty in 1958.
“Genetics seemed to be pretty interesting, because nobody knew yet how it worked,” he told The New Yorker in a fascinating profile from 1981. “But I wasn’t sure that it was profound. The problems of physics seemed profound and solvable. It might have been nice to do physics. But the problem of intelligence seemed hopelessly profound. I can’t remember considering anything else worth doing.”
Minsky started working on artificial intelligence in the 1950s, long before the invention of personal computers or the Internet. He co-founded the Artificial Intelligence Group at MIT with John McCarthy, another computer science hero who coined the term “artificial intelligence.”
The problem of intelligence seemed hopelessly profound. I can’t remember considering anything else worth doing.” Marvin Minsky
This wasn’t a surprise, as Minsky had always been fascinated with artificial intelligence. In 1951, he built the first randomly wired neural network learning machine. While it’s hard to know for sure, it was possibly the first artificial self-learning machine.
His way of thinking greatly affected cognitive science and not just computer science. According to him, neurons are just semiautonomous relays in our brain and there isn’t much difference between a machine and a human brain. In 1960, he wrote a famous paper called Step Toward Artificial Intelligence. He divided the path leading to artificial intelligence into five steps:
A computer can do, in a sense, only what it is told to do. But even when we do not know exactly how to solve a certain problem, we may program a machine to Search through some large space of solution attempts. Unfortunately, when we write a straightforward program for such a search, we usually find the resulting process to be enormously inefficient. With Pattern-Recognition techniques, efficiency can be greatly improved by restricting the machine to use its methods only on the kind of attempts for which they are appropriate. And with Learning, efficiency is further improved by directing Search in accord with earlier experiences. By actually analyzing the situation, using what we call Planning methods, the machine may obtain a really fundamental improvement by replacing the originally given Search by a much smaller, more appropriate exploration. Finally, in the section on Induction, we con- sider some rather more global concepts of how one might obtain intelligent machine behavior.
In other words, Minsky was convinced that computers could do so much more than execute a set of predefined instructions and was theorizing a model for a so-called artificial intelligence program. It was groundbreaking.
Computers were the most potent invention of the 20th century. Artificial intelligence is going to be the most society-altering field of the 21st century. And Minsky was studying these innovations from the very beginning.
Minsky also invented scientific instruments, such as the confocal microscope in 1957. He played the piano quite well, and he was a philosopher and a writer. He was an adviser for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. More importantly, he was a major influence for the nascent field of computer science. With Minsky, computers became so much more than dumb calculators.