On Marvin Minsky

Marvin Minsky has passed away from us last night. Right before I got the sad news, I had spent an hour in a conversation with a friend in on the other side of the continent, discussing how Marvin has influenced our work and our way of looking at what makes us human.

(Marvin Minsky, me and Cosmo Harrigan, at his house)

Marvin Minsky was quite certainly the most influential thinker about the nature of our minds in recent history. When psychology focused on behavior because it had failed to develop methods to study mental processes, thought and intentionality, Marvin realized that minds are information processing systems, and we can make progress in understanding them by building computer models of these processes. Minsky became the founding father of this new computational science of the mind: Artificial Intelligence.

Marvin Minsky did not think that minds are governed by a simple general principle, like neural learning, or homeostasis. The richness and depth of what makes us human requires an enormous complexity of cooperating and often self-regulating mechanisms, which Minsky started to address in his famous “Society of mind” theory. He pushed hard against approaches that he considered too simplistic, and inadvertently contributed to the schism between symbolic AI, which started out to address higher levels of cognition, and connectionist AI, which concentrated on learning, perception, and motor control.

AI has always been the pioneer battalion of computer science, but despite all its engineering successes, it is still far from explaining intelligence. We may have discovered many pieces of the puzzle, but we are still in the early stages of fitting them together.

Nothing is as strongly associated to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as Artificial Intelligence and the person of Marvin Minsky himself. In the 60 years since Marvin started the field, he has inspired several generations of students and researchers to think about minds. Many of his inventions, and scientific contributions, his deep, yet very accessible books and his lectures were far ahead of their time, and have not lost any of their relevance.

Marvin Minsky’s ideas led me, as many others, on my personal scientific quest. It has been an incredible honor to get to know him during the past year, and my thoughts are with his family and his friends.

I believe that today, the need for working on AI is as pressing as ever. Psychology is still unable to formulate and test theories, neuroscientists are entirely focused on nervous systems and not on minds. Artificial Intelligence is our best bet at understanding who we are, and it is time to continue Marvin’s work, to recognize and describe the the richness of our minds, and to build machines that think, feel, perceive, learn, imagine and dream.