AI pioneer Marvin Minsky dies at 88

Scientist, philosopher and maker of 'box with a switch on it'


Obituary Marvin Minsky, one of the founders of the field of Artificial Intelligence, and an inspiration to generations of researchers, has died.

Minsky was a philosopher and a scientist, as well as an adored and decorated academic. Among these decorations was the Turing Award in 1969, and an induction as a Fellow of the Computer History Museum in 2006 for "co-founding the field of artificial intelligence, creating early neural networks and robots, and developing theories of human and machine cognition."

Minsky pioneered the first ever neural network, constructed using vacuum tubes, as well as the first head-mounted graphical display. Alongside his MIT colleague John McCarthy, Minsky founded the institute's AI lab.

The great man's home page on MIT notes he achieved his BA and PhD in mathematics at Harvard (1950) and Princeton (1954) respectively, after serving in the US Navy at the end of the Second World War.

As a graduate student at Bell Labs in the '50s, Minsky was mentored by none other than Ur cryptographer Claude Shannon. While at Bell Labs, Minsky invented what is arguably the most famous version of the "useless machine", which he dubbed the "ultimate machine", a seemingly banal box with a switch on it.

Once the switch is turned on, the box opens and an arm extends from within to turn the switch off, before retreating back inside. The whole function of the machine was to return itself to its initial state.

This Minsky New Yorker profile of 1981 is worth another look, especially its citation of this extract of a Minsky paper titled "Matter, Mind, and Models":

From Chapter 8, Free Will, of Matter, Mind and Models by Marvin L. Minsky

If one thoroughly understands a machine or a program, he finds no urge to attribute “volition” to it. If one does not understand it so well, he must supply an incomplete model for explanation. Our everyday intuitive models of higher human activity are quite incomplete, and many notions in our informal explanations do not tolerate close examination. Free will or volition is one such notion: people are incapable of explaining how it differs from stochastic caprice but feel strongly that it does. I conjecture that this idea has its genesis in a strong primitive defense mechanism. Briefly, in childhood we learn to recognize various forms of aggression and compulsion and to dislike them, whether we submit or resist. Older, when told that our behavior is “controlled” by such-and-such a set of laws, we insert this fact in our model (inappropriately) along with other recognizers of compulsion. We resist “compulsion,” no matter from “whom.” Although resistance is logically futile, the resentment persists and is rationalized by defective explanations, since the alternative is emotionally unacceptable.

Minsky died of a cerebral haemorrhage in his home on Sunday night at 88 years of age. ®

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