Technology

AI pioneer Marvin Minsky dies aged 88

Marvin Minsky Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Marvin Minsky was one of the driving forces behind AI developments

Marvin Minsky, one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, has died of a cerebral haemorrhage, aged 88.

The mathematician and computer scientist was one of the world's foremost AI experts.

As a student, he built one of the first neural-network learning machines, using vacuum tubes.

He went on to cofound the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Lab, in 1959, with John McCarthy.

Prof Minsky's ideas and influence were wide-ranging - from computational linguistics, mathematics and robotics - but underpinning it all was a desire, in his own words, "to impart to machines the human capacity for commonsense reasoning".

He viewed the brain as a machine whose functions could be replicated in a computer.

And his 1985 book, The Society of Mind, is considered a seminal work in exploring the diversity of mechanisms that interact in intelligence and thought.

His last book, The Emotion Machine, continued the theme, offering a new model for how minds worked.

Image copyright Daniel Lovering, MIT Technology Review
Image caption In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Marvin Minsky spoke about current AI developments

Some experts have said the field of artificial intelligence is currently experiencing something of a golden age, with deep-learning neural networks making advances in both speech and image recognition.

But, in one of his last interviews, with MIT Technology Review last year, Prof Minsky said there had been "very little growth in artificial intelligence" in the past decade, adding current work had been "mostly attempting to improve systems that aren't very good and haven't improved much in two decades".

By contrast, he said, "the 1950s and 1960s were wonderful - something new every week".

And he hinted he was against large technology companies such as Google and Facebook getting involved the field of AI.

"We have to get rid of the big companies and go back to giving support to individuals who have new ideas because attempting to commercialise existing things hasn't worked very well," he said.

Reflected light

Daniela Rus, director of the lab that Prof Minsky cofounded, now known as the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, said: "Marvin Minsky helped create the vision of artificial intelligence as we know it today."

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

Meanwhile, Prof Nicholas Negroponte, cofounder of MIT's Media Lab, said: "Marvin talked in riddles that made perfect sense, were always profound and often so funny that you would find yourself laughing days later.

"His genius was so self-evidence that it defined 'awesome'. The lab bathed in his reflected light."

Prof Minsky helped advise the director Stanley Kubrick about AI for his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the characters in the film, Victor Kaminski, was named in his honour.

He was also a talented pianist and, in 1981, wrote an influential paper on the connections between music, psychology and the mind.

He also invented the earliest confocal scanning microscope.

He received many awards over the years, including the Turing Award - the highest honour in computer science - in 1969.

Prof Minsky is survived by his wife, Gloria Rudisch Minsky, and three children, Henry, Juliana, and Margaret Minsky.

More on this story