Marvin Minsky

Marvin Minsky

Minsky in 2008
Born Marvin Lee Minsky
(1927-08-09)August 9, 1927
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died January 24, 2016(2016-01-24) (aged 88)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Nationality American
Institutions Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Alma mater Phillips Academy
Harvard University (B.A., 1950)
Princeton University (Ph.D., 1954)
Thesis Theory of Neural-Analog Reinforcement Systems and Its Application to the Brain Model Problem (1954)
Doctoral advisor Albert W. Tucker[1][2]
Doctoral students
Known for
Influenced David Waltz
Notable awards

Marvin Lee Minsky (August 9, 1927 – January 24, 2016) was an American cognitive scientist concerned largely with research of artificial intelligence (AI), co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AI laboratory, and author of several texts concerning AI and philosophy.[13][14][15][16]


Marvin Lee Minsky was born in New York City, to an eye surgeon father, Henry, and to a mother, Fannie, who was an activist of Zionist affairs.[16][17] His family was Jewish. He attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School and the Bronx High School of Science. He later attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He then served in the US Navy from 1944 to 1945. He received a B.A. in mathematics from Harvard University (1950) and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton University (1954).[18][19]

He was on the MIT faculty from 1958 to his death. During 1959[20] he and John McCarthy initiated what is known now as the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He was the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Contributions in computer science

3D profile of a coin (partial) measured with a modern confocal white light microscope.

Minsky's inventions include the first head-mounted graphical display (1963)[21] and the confocal microscope[5][22] (1957, a predecessor to today's widely used confocal laser scanning microscope). He developed, with Seymour Papert, the first Logo "turtle". Minsky also built, during 1951, the first randomly wired neural network learning machine, SNARC.

Minsky wrote the book Perceptrons (with Seymour Papert), which became the foundational work in the analysis of artificial neural networks. This book is the center of a controversy in the history of AI, as some claim it to have had great importance in discouraging research of neural networks during the 1970s, and contributing to the so-called "AI winter".[23] He also founded several other famous AI models. His book A framework for representing knowledge created a new paradigm in programming. While his Perceptrons is now more a historical than practical book, the theory of frames is in wide use.[24] Minsky has also written on the possibility that extraterrestrial life may think like humans, permitting communication.[25] He was an adviser[26] on Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey; one of the movie's characters, Victor Kaminski, was named in Minsky's honor[27] and Minsky himself is mentioned in the movie and in Arthur C. Clarke's derivative novel of the same name:

Probably no one would ever know this; it did not matter. In the 1980s, Minsky and Good had shown how neural networks could be generated automatically—self replicated—in accordance with any arbitrary learning program. Artificial brains could be grown by a process strikingly analogous to the development of a human brain. In any given case, the precise details would never be known, and even if they were, they would be millions of times too complex for human understanding.[28]

During the early 1970s, at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, Minsky and Papert started developing what came to be known as the Society of Mind theory. The theory attempts to explain how what we call intelligence could be a product of the interaction of non-intelligent parts. Minsky says that the biggest source of ideas about the theory came from his work in trying to create a machine that uses a robotic arm, a video camera, and a computer to build with children's blocks. During 1986, Minsky published The Society of Mind, a comprehensive book on the theory which, unlike most of his previously published work, was written for the general public.

During November 2006, Minsky published The Emotion Machine, a book that critiques many popular theories of how human minds work and suggests alternative theories, often replacing simple ideas with more complex ones. Recent drafts of the book are freely available from his webpage.[29]

Personal life

The Minskytron or "Three Position Display" running on the Computer History Museum's PDP-1, 2007

During 1952, Minsky married pediatrician Dr. Gloria Rudisch; together they had three children.[30] Minsky was a talented improvisational[31] pianist who published musings on the relations between music and psychology.


Minsky was an atheist[32] and a signatory to the Scientists' Open Letter on Cryonics.[33] He was a critic of the Loebner Prize for conversational robots.[34][35]

Minsky believed that there is no fundamental difference between humans and machines, and that humans are machines whose "intelligence" emerges from the interplay of the many unintelligent but semi-autonomous agents that comprise the brain.[36] He has stated that "somewhere down the line, some computers will become more intelligent than most people," but that it's very hard to predict how fast progress will be.[37] He has cautioned that an artificial superintelligence designed to solve an innocuous mathematical problem might decide to assume control of Earth's resources to build supercomputers to help achieve its goal,[38] but believed that such negative scenarios are "hard to take seriously" because he was confident AI would go through "a lot of testing" before being deployed.[39]


Minsky died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 88.[40] Ray Kurzweil says he was contacted by the cryonics organization Alcor Life Extension Foundation seeking Minsky's body.[41] Kurzweil believes that Minsky was cryonically preserved by Alcor company and will be revived by 2045.[41] Minsky was a member of Alcor's Scientific Advisory Board.[42] In keeping with their policy of protecting privacy, Alcor will neither confirm nor deny that Alcor has cryonically preserved Minsky.[43]

Bibliography (selected)

Awards and affiliations

Minsky won the Turing Award (the greatest distinction in computer science)[36] during 1969, the Japan Prize during 1990, the IJCAI Award for Research Excellence for 1991, and the Benjamin Franklin Medal from the Franklin Institute for 2001.[44] During 2006, he was inducted as a Fellow of the Computer History Museum "for co-founding the field of artificial intelligence, creating early neural networks and robots, and developing theories of human and machine cognition."[45] During 2011, Minsky was inducted into IEEE Intelligent Systems' AI's Hall of Fame for the "significant contributions to the field of AI and intelligent systems".[46][47] During 2014, Minsky won the Dan David Prize for "Artificial Intelligence, the Digital Mind".[48] He was also awarded with the 2013 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Information and Communication Technologies category.[49]

Minsky was affiliated with the following organizations:


  1. Marvin Lee Minsky at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  2. Marvin Lee Minsky at the AI Genealogy Project.
  3. "Personal page for Marvin Minsky". Retrieved 23 June 2016.
  4. Minsky, M. (1961). "Steps toward Artificial Intelligence". Proceedings of the IRE. 49: 8–1. doi:10.1109/JRPROC.1961.287775.
  5. 1 2 Minsky, M. (1988). "Memoir on inventing the confocal scanning microscope". Scanning. 10 (4): 128–138. doi:10.1002/sca.4950100403.
  6. Pesta, A (March 12, 2014). "Looking for Something Useful to Do With Your Time? Don't Try This". WSJ. Retrieved March 24, 2014.
  7. Hillis, Danny; McCarthy, John; Mitchell, Tom M.; Mueller, Erik T.; Riecken, Doug; Sloman, Aaron; Winston, Patrick Henry (2007). "In Honor of Marvin Minsky's Contributions on his 80th Birthday". AI Magazine. 28 (4): 109. doi:10.1609/aimag.v28i4.2064 (inactive 2016-11-05). Retrieved January 26, 2016.
  8. Minsky, Marvin (1960). "Steps toward artificial intelligence". Retrieved December 13, 2006.
  9. Papert, Seymour; Minsky, Marvin Lee (1988). Perceptrons: an introduction to computational geometry. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-63111-3.
  10. Minsky, Marvin Lee (1986). The society of mind. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-60740-5. The first comprehensive description of the Society of Mind theory of intellectual structure and development. See also The Society of Mind (CD-ROM version), Voyager, 1996.
  11. Minsky, Marvin Lee (2007). The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-7664-7.
  12. "Marvin Minsky".
  13. Marvin Minsky at DBLP Bibliography Server
  14. List of publications from Microsoft Academic Search
  15. "marvin minsky – Google Scholar".
  16. 1 2 Winston, Patrick Henry (2016). "Marvin L. Minsky (1927-2016)". Nature. Springer Nature. 530 (7590): 282–282. doi:10.1038/530282a. PMID 26887486.
  17. Science in the contemporary world: an encyclopedia ISBN 1851095241
  18. Minsky, Marvin Lee (1954). Theory of Neural-Analog Reinforcement Systems and Its Application to the Brain Model Problem (PhD thesis). Princeton University. OCLC 3020680.
  19. Hillis, Danny; John McCarthy; Tom M. Mitchell; Erik T. Mueller; Doug Riecken; Aaron Sloman; Patrick Henry Winston (2007). "In Honor of Marvin Minsky's Contributions on his 80th Birthday". AI Magazine. Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. 28 (4): 103–110. Retrieved November 24, 2010.
  20. Horgan, John (November 1993). "Profile: Marvin L. Minsky: The Mastermind of Artificial Intelligence". Scientific American. 269 (5): 14–15. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1193-35.
  21. 1 2 3 "Brief Academic Biography of Marvin Minsky". Retrieved January 26, 2016.
  22. The patent for Minsky's Microscopy Apparatus was applied for during 1957, and subsequently granted US Patent Number 3,013,467 during 1961. According to his published biography on the MIT Media Lab webpage, "In 1956, when a Junior Fellow at Harvard, Minsky invented and built the first Confocal Scanning Microscope, an optical instrument with unprecedented resolution and image quality".
  23. Olazaran, Mikel (August 1996). "A Sociological Study of the Official History of the Perceptrons Controversy". Social Studies of Science. 26 (3): 611–659. doi:10.1177/030631296026003005. JSTOR 285702.
  24. Unknown (1975). "Minsky's frame system theory". Proceedings of the 1975 workshop on Theoretical issues in natural language processing – TINLAP '75. pp. 104–116. doi:10.3115/980190.980222.
  25. Minsky, Marvin (April 1985). "Communication with Alien Intelligence". BYTE. p. 127. Retrieved October 27, 2013.
  26. For more, see this interview,
  27. "AI pioneer Marvin Minsky dies aged 88". BBC News. 26 January 2016. Retrieved 28 January 2016.
  28. Clarke, Arthur C.: "2001: A Space Odyssey"
  29. "Marvin Minsky".
  30. "R.I.P. Marvin Minsky". Washington Post. 26 January 2016. Retrieved 28 January 2016.
  31. "Obituary: Marvin Minsky, 88; MIT professor helped found field of artificial intelligence". Boston Globe. 26 January 2016. Retrieved 28 January 2016.
  32. Leon M. Lederman, Judith A. Scheppler (2001). "Marvin Minsky: Mind Maker". Portraits of Great American Scientists. Prometheus Books. p. 74. ISBN 9781573929325. Another area where he "goes against the flow" is in his spiritual beliefs. As far as religion is concerned, he's a confirmed atheist. "I think it [religion] is a contagious mental disease. . . . The brain has a need to believe it knows a reason for things.
  33. Scientists' Open Letter on Cryonics, Institute for Evidence Based Cryonics, retrieved January 29, 2016
  34. "Minsky -thread.html".
  35. Technology | Artificial stupidity
  36. 1 2 "Marvin Minsky, Pioneer in Artificial Intelligence, Dies at 88". The New York Times. January 25, 2016. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  37. "For artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, computers have soul". Jerusalem Post. 13 May 2014. Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  38. Russell, Stuart J.; Norvig, Peter (2003). "Section 26.3: The Ethics and Risks of Developing Artificial Intelligence". Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0137903952. Similarly, Marvin Minsky once suggested that an AI program designed to solve the Riemann Hypothesis might end up taking over all the resources of Earth to build more powerful supercomputers to help achieve its goal.
  39. Achenbach, Joel (6 January 2016). "Marvin Minsky, an architect of artificial intelligence, dies at 88". Washington Post. Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  40. Pearson, Michael (26 January 2016). "Pioneering computer scientist Marvin Minsky dies at 88". CNN. pp. 12–27. Retrieved 2016-04-07.
  41. 1 2 Kurzweil, Ray (April 4, 2016). "Ray Kurzweil Remembers Marvin Minsky". YouTube. Retrieved 2016-04-07.
  42. 1 2 Admin (January 14, 2016). "Alcor Scientific Advisory Board". Alcor website. Wayback Machine. Archived from the original on January 14, 2016. Retrieved 2016-04-07.
  43. Admin (January 27, 2016). "Official Alcor Statement Concerning Marvin Minsky". Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Retrieved 2016-04-07.
  44. Marvin Minsky – The Franklin Institute Awards – Laureate Database. Franklin Institute. Retrieved on March 25, 2008.
  45. CHM. "Marvin Minsky — CHM Fellow Award Winner". Retrieved March 30, 2015.
  46. "AI's Hall of Fame" (PDF). IEEE Intelligent Systems. IEEE Computer Society. 26 (4): 5–15. 2011. doi:10.1109/MIS.2011.64.
  47. "IEEE Computer Society Magazine Honors Artificial Intelligence Leaders". August 24, 2011. Retrieved September 18, 2011. Press release source: PRWeb (Vocus).
  48. "Dan David prize 2014 winners". May 15, 2014. Retrieved May 20, 2014.
  49. "MIT artificial intelligence, robotics pioneer feted: Award celebrates Minsky's career". August 24, 2011. Retrieved January 18, 2014.
  50. "Extropy Institute Directors & Advisors".
  51. Minsky joins kynamatrix board of directors
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