By the time you read this column the Iowa caucuses will have been decided and we will have commenced the first stage in what will prove to be an extremely exciting and pivotal presidential election.
Of course, the next president will promote policies and agendas that will undoubtedly influence our lives. Their impact, however, is dwarfed in the long-term by the contributions of a true renaissance thinker who passed away last week as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage. Martin Minsky, a New York City native and Bronx High School of Science graduate, was an inspiring scientist whose work, vision, research and overall creativity changed the way we think about computers forever.
Back in the 60s, my original comprehension of what a computer does was that it essentially performed a binary application: X or O, white or black, yes or no. In that way through a series of steps it could “reason” on a highly limited basis. In my myopic view, a computer could never truly create anything but rather would merely spew back the results of a pre-programmed logical progression (garbage in-garbage out).
Minsky, however, couldn’t have disagreed with me more. After graduating from Harvard he taught at MIT and believing wholeheartedly that he could impart common sense reasoning to computers, established the MIT. Artificial Intelligence Project in 1959 (later renamed the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory).
His colleague and friend Alan Kay put it this way: “Marvin was one of the very few people in computing whose visions and perspectives liberated the computer from being a glorified adding machine to start to realize its destiny as one of the most powerful amplifiers for human endeavors in history.”
His three main books: “Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines, Prentice-Hall” (1967), “The Society of Mind” (1986) and “The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence and the Future of the Human Mind” (2006) each blew the lid off previously held conceptual limitations on the capabilities of computers.
In what must be considered his seminal work, “The Society of Mind,” Minsky employs a series of 270 essays to meticulously carve out his core philosophical tenets. Within this framework he proposes that the human mind is an incredibly evolved cognitive system, which consists largely of individually simple processes that he labels “agents.” These processes comprise the thinking systems on which the brain is built and end up producing the various abilities that scientists label “thinking.” By viewing the mind in this fashion, Minsky can now realistically foresee the day when we can design a computer that would duplicate the “agents” and therefore literally “think” like a human. His revolutionary idea is encapsulated in the following Minsky quote: “What magical trick makes us intelligent? The trick is that there is no trick. The power of intelligence stems from our vast diversity, not from any single, perfect principle.”
You may have guessed that Minsky was an early proponent of artificial intelligence (also known as AI). Countless books (I recommend Stuart Russell’s “Artificial Intelligence: a Modern Approach”), television shows (most recently “Extant”) and movies (including one entitled “AI”, the “Terminator” series and, of course, “Star Wars”) have explored the concept that robots (and computers) will in the future adopt human capabilities, for better or for worse. Although finding the concept fascinating, I could never comprehend how a machine could emote. Minsky answers my doubts in his last major work, “The Emotion Machine.” He suggests that emotions are merely different ways that our mind uses to increase our intelligence. For him, emotions are just another form of thinking when confronting different problems in our lives. In other words, the brain literally turns on emotions when it deems it to be an appropriate response to a certain situation.
To fully comprehend his vision, we need to first understand his view of what emotions are in the first place. Minsky vehemently objected to our traditional view of emotions, which he characterized as an extra feature to thought “like adding color to a black and white drawing.” He believed that our traditional view of emotions bestowed on them an unnecessarily mysterious quality. This is why, says Minksy, we have hundreds of words for different emotional states but very few to describe everyday ways to reason and think. Instead, in “The Emotion Machine” he encourages us to regard the emotional state as the deliberate suppression of our usual mental activities and by so doing, he explains, we will eliminate emotions’ mysterious aura. Once the emotional hurdle has been overcome, Minsky felt a thinking/evolving computer was not far behind.
Attempting to get some perspective from the scientific community on the significance of Martin Minsky’s work, I asked another brilliant soul, Dr. Cliff Pickover, the prolific science book author and inventor for his thoughts. Dr Pickover indicated that he was deeply impressed “with the sheer breadth of Minsky’s interests.” Pickover continued: “Minsky pondered ideas that ranged from early head-mounted graphical displays and confocal microscopes to mechanical hands with tactile sensors, wired neural network learning machines, and communication with extraterrestrial life.”
Thanks to the work of Martin Minsky and other visionaries like him, there is no limit to what computers can provide for humankind in the future—including senior care, medicine, law, emergency services but alas not in politics, for that we will always need the fine people of Iowa.
Finally, when I asked Dr. Pickover for his favorite Minsky quote, he replied, “You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than one way.”
No computer could have said it any better.
Rest in peace, Martin Minsky, and thank you.