How Marvin Minsky revolutionized artificial intelligence

Renowned artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky died Jan. 24. His insights into human intelligence will have a lasting impact on the field of artificial intelligence. 


Pioneer of artificial intelligence, mathematician, and avid pianist Marvin Minsky died Sunday, Jan. 24. He was 88. News of his death was announced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. According to The Washington Post, an email distributed to employees read:

With great great sadness, I have to report that Marvin Minsky died last night. The world has lost one of its greatest minds in science.

Dr. Minsky’s formal education was in the field of mathematics, earning his undergraduate from Harvard in 1950 and his PhD in 1954. But, after achieving his doctorate, he shifted his attention to artificial intelligence. He referred to the puzzle of artificial intelligence as “hopelessly profound” in a 1981 interview with The New Yorker.

As an inventor, Minsky contributed creations such as the first neural network simulator, SNARC, and the Confocal Scanning Microscope, among other various inventions, according to his MIT biography page. However, his biggest impact comes from his insights into human intelligence, which shaped the field of artificial intelligence.

“Marvin was one of the very few people in computing whose visions and perspectives liberated the computer from being a glorified adding machine to start to realize its destiny as one of the most powerful amplifiers for human endeavors in history,” computer scientist and Minsky colleague Alan Kay told The New York Times.

Minsky’s work in artificial intelligence was driven by the concept of “imparting to machines the human capacity for commonsense reasoning,” as written on his biography page. He believed the functioning, commonsense intelligence associated with the human mind could be recreated in machines.

Minsky outlined his thoughts on human intelligence and structure in two books: "The Emotion Machine" (2006) and "The Society of Mind" (1988).

In "The Emotion Machine," Minsky outlined his focus on the logical, rational thought needed for everyday actions and away from the complexities of emotions prevalent in the field of artificial intelligence. He spoke about his ideas in the novel in an interview with New Scientist in 2007:

The traditional view of emotions is that they add extra features to thoughts, just like adding colour to a black-and-white drawing. This makes emotions seem very mysterious because we can’t imagine what those extra features are. However, if we regard each emotional state as suppressing some of our usual mental activities, much of the mystery disappears. Perhaps this is why we have hundreds of different words for emotional states, but we have very few terms for describing our everyday ways to reason and think… Besides, we take common-sense thinking for granted. It works so well that we feel no need to ask how we represent and retrieve the knowledge required for such thinking.

In the early 1970s, Minsky collaborated with Seymour Papert, a computer scientist and educator. The duo developed a theory called “The Society of Mind,” which was outlined in Minsky’s book of the same name. The underlying theory maintains that the human mind is made up of various different components, all of which are used for different tasks, and that the system could be replicated in a machine. "The Society of Mind" did not seek to prove a theory, but instead listed different insights and models of thinking about human intelligence. The theories had a lasting impact on shaping the field of artificial intelligence.

"The challenges he defined are still driving our quest for intelligent machines and inspiring researchers to push the boundaries in computer science." Daniela Rus, director of the lab that Prof. Minsky cofounded, now known as the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, said in the MIT News announcement. 

Minsky had been with MIT since 1958 and during that time, he was a founding faculty member of the MIT Media Lab.  He also had an impact on many of his students.

“Marvin taught me how to think,” Danny Hillis, a former student and current entreprenuer and inventor, said to The New York Times. "He always challenged you to question the status quo."


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