Marvin Minsky

July 11, 2009

Marvin Minsky has made many contributions to AI, cognitive psychology, mathematics, computational linguistics, robotics, and optics. In recent years he has worked chiefly on imparting to machines the human capacity for commonsense reasoning. His conception of human intellectual structure and function is presented in The Society of Mind (1987), which is also the title of the course he teaches at MIT.

He received the BA and PhD in mathematics at Harvard and Princeton. In 1951 he built the SNARC, the first neural network simulator. His other inventions include mechanical hands and other robotic devices,the confocal scanning microscope, the “Muse” synthesizer for musical variations (with E. Fredkin), and the first LOGO “turtle” (with S. Papert). A member of the NAS, NAE and Argentine NAS, he has received the ACM Turing Award, the MIT Killian Award, the Japan Prize, the IJCAI Research Excellence Award, and the Rank Prize for Optoelectronics.

Marvin Minsky is Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research has led to both theoretical and practical advances in artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, neural networks, and the theory of Turing Machines and recursive functions. He has made major contributions in the domains of symbolic graphical description, computational geometry, knowledge representation, computational semantics, machine perception, symbolic and connectionist learning. He has also been involved with many studies of advanced technologies for space exploration.

Professor Minsky was also one of the pioneers of intelligence-based mechanical robotics and telepresence. He designed and built some of the first mechanical hands with tactile sensors, visual scanners, and their software and computer interfaces. He also influenced many robotic projects outside of MIT, and designed and built the first LOGO “turtle.” In 1951 he built the first randomly wired neural network learning machine (called SNARC, for Stochastic Neural-Analog Reinforcement Computer), based on the reinforcement of simulated synaptic transmission coefficients. When a Junior Fellow at Harvard, he invented and built the first Confocal Scanning Microscope, an optical instrument with unprecedented resolution and image quality.

Since the early 1950s, Marvin Minsky has worked on using computational ideas to characterize human psychological processes, as well as working to endow machines with intelligence. In 1959, Minsky and John McCarthy founded what became the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and his long tenure as its co-director placed his imprint upon the entire field of Artificial Intelligence. His seminal 1961 paper, “Steps Toward Artificial Intelligence surveyed and analyzed all of what had been done before, and set forth the major problems of that infant discipline. The 1963 paper, “Matter, Mind, and Models” addressed the problem of making self-aware machines; in <B>”Perceptrons,” 1969, he and Seymour Papert characterized the capabilities and limitations of loop-free learning and pattern recognition machines. In “A Framework for Representing Knowledge (1974) he put forth a model of knowledge representation to account for many phenomena in cognition, language understanding, and visual perception. These representations, called “frames,” inherited their variable assignments from previously defined frames, and are often considered to be an early form of object oriented programming.

In the early 1970s, Minsky and Papert began formulating a theory called The Society of Mind which combined insights from developmental child psychology and their experience with research on Artificial Intelligence. The Society of Mind proposes that intelligence is not the product of any singular mechanism, but comes from the managed interaction of a diverse variety of resourceful agents. They argued that such diversity is necessary because different tasks require fundamentally different mechanisms; this transforms psychology from a fruitless quest for a few “basic” principles into a search for mechanisms that a mind could use to manage the interaction of many diverse elements.

Bits and pieces of this theory emerged in papers through the 70s and early 80s. Papert turned his energies to applying these new ideas to transforming education while Minsky continued to work primarily on the theory. In 1985, he published “The Society of Mind,” a book in which 270 interconnected one-page ideas reflect the structure of the theory itself. Each page either proposes one such mechanism , to account for some psychological phenomena , or addresses a problem introduced by some proposed solution of another page.

Since the publication of “The Society of Mind,” Minsky has continued to develop the theory in several directions. He is currently working on a new book, “The Emotion Machine,” describing the roles played by feelings, goals, emotions, and conscious thoughts in terms of processes that motivate and regulate the activities within our personal societies of mind.

See essays by this author:
Consciousness is a Big Suitcase
The emotion universe
See selected books by this author:
THE AGE of INTELLIGENT MACHINES | Thoughts About Artificial Intelligence
The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind
The Society of Mind