Father of AI, Marvin Minsky, dies at 88, leaves legacy of challenges to tackle and broad thinking to emulate

Visionary scientist and pioneer of artificial intelligence provided an example of intellectual exploration, paving way to discoveries in computer science, robotics, drones, and more.

Image: Louis Fabian Bachrach

On Sunday, January 24, esteemed scientist, mathematician, and father of artificial intelligence, Marvin Minsky, died in Boston. Best known for his role in the development of AI, Minsky began studying the relationship between man and machine—how machines could become intelligent—back in the 1950's, long before the widespread use of computers.

Significant contributions

Minsky studied at Harvard, Princeton, and MIT. He created a wired neural network learning machine, called "Snarc," while at Princeton in 1951. Minsky also co-founded the MIT Artificial Intelligence Project—now the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL)—in 1959.

But, he may be most famous for The Society of Mind, published in 1985, a seminal and wide-ranging book exploring the role of thought in machines.

Minsky's explorations into mental processes continued with his last book, The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind, published in 2006 as an attempt to break down the natural workings of the mind.

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What he meant to research

Minsky had ties to Harvard and MIT, becoming a professor at the MIT Lab (where he was a founding member) and CSAIL. "Marvin Minsky helped create the vision of artificial intelligence as we know it today," said CSAIL Director Daniela Rus. "The challenges he defined are still driving our quest for intelligent machines and inspiring researchers to push the boundaries in computer science."

"The challenges he defined are still driving our quest for intelligent machines and inspiring researchers to push the boundaries in computer science." Daniela Rus

According to Carnegie Mellon University professor Siddhartha Srinivasa, Minsky made "the first connection between computational intelligence (thinking smart) and physical intelligence (acting smart), which led to much of robotics research."

Minsky's impact

It is hard to overstate Minsky's impact on the world of AI. His influence touched both his friends and colleagues, as well as almost any computer scientist, engineer, philosopher, or mathematician entering the field.

Of course, not everyone in robotics agreed with Minsky. Joe Jones, original founder of the Roomba, believed that "building robots that work in the real world is an important component of advancing AI," whereas "by some accounts, Marvin saw robots as more of a distraction." Still, said Jones, "he and his deep insight into the field will be missed."

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And while Minsky is known for AI, he was also seen as a "universal genius who made contributions to our understanding of humor, aliens, music, meaning, education and many other subjects," said Roman Yampolskiy, director of the Cybersecurity Lab at the University of Louisville. "He joins Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, John von Neumann and other polymaths as a role model, demonstrating that all knowledge is interconnected."

Professor Srinivasa thinks of Minksy as his "academic great-grandfather."

"The word 'visionary' has lost some of its credibility lately," said Srinivasa, "but he is one of the few who truly deserves that accolade."

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Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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