AI pioneer Marvin Minsky is born, August 9, 1927

-August 09, 2016

On this day in tech history, mathematician and co-founder of the field of artificial intelligence, Marvin Minsky was born in New York.

A pioneer of robotics and telepresence, Minsky has contributed to computer science in artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, mathematics, computational linguistics, robotics, optics, and advanced technologies for exploring space.

Growing up he attended private schools before serving a year in the Navy in 1944. He then received his bachelors (Harvard 1950) and PhD (Princeton 1954) in mathematics, and worked as a junior fellow at Harvard for three years.

Minsky built the first randomly wired neural network learning machine, SNARC (stochastic neural-analog reinforcement computer) in 1951. Made out of 400 vacuum tubes, it was based on reinforcing the synaptic connections that contributed to recent reactions.

He invented the first confocal scanning microscope, an optical instrument with unprecedented resolution and image quality in 1956.

In 1957 Minsky began working at MIT, where he is currently Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

After coining the term in 1956, Minsky and John McCarthy co-founded the Artificial Intelligence Project at MIT in 1959. Minsky famously said, "No computer has ever been designed that is ever aware of what it's doing; but most of the time, we aren't either."

Minsky worked with Seymour Papert to develop the society of mind theory, which proposes that human consciousness and thought processes are not the product of any singular mechanism, but managed interactions of a series of mini-minds or agents, each of which perform specific functions. They argued that each agent by itself can only do a simple thing that needs no mind or thought, but joining the agents in certain ways leads to true intelligence. In 1985 Minsky published The Society of Mind which consisted of 270 interconnected one-page ideas to reflect the structure of the theory.

Minsky published a sequel in 2006, The Emotion Machine, which theorizes on human higher-level feelings, goals, emotions, and conscious thoughts in terms of multiple levels of processes.

Throughout his career he has combined computer science and psychology by applying computational concepts to the understanding of human psychological processes and endowing machines with intelligence.

Minsky has worked on visual scanners, the Muse synthesizer for musical variations with Ed Fredkin, and the first turtle robots using the computer programming language Logo with Papert. He also designed mechanical hands with tactile sensors, and his research led to the theory of Turing Machines and resistive functions. He was also a technical consultant for the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Among his many awards, Minsky has received the ACM Turing Award in 1969, the Japan Prize in 1990, and the Benjamin Franklin Medal in 2001.

Watch the AI pioneer's 2003 Ted Talks presentation on health and the human mind:

Minsky passed away in January 2016 at the age of 88.

Also see:

Also on this day in tech history:  
On August 9, 1898, Rudolf Diesel was issued a patent for his diesel internal combustion engine, a competitor to the gasoline engine at the time.

For more moments in tech history, see this blog. EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.

Editor's note
: This article was originally posted on August 9, 2013 and edited on August 9, 2016.


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