Monday, January 25, 2016

Marvin Minsky, 1927-2016

Prof. Marvin Lee Minsky, or just Marvin to those who knew him, died last night.  We have lost one of the great humans of our time, perhaps of all time.  A humble, brilliant, passionate man, with a blazing intellect and an amazing zen, a childlike curiosity, Marvin pioneered much of the early work in AI, together with John McCarthy, Herb Simon, and Allen Newell and others.  He opened our eyes to much that was new, and he and his academic progeny have shaped a lot of what we know about AI today.

With a grad school recommendation letter of all of a single line, Marvin changed my life.  And his work, his teachings, his ways of exploring the unknown, his ability to span and to combine several widely varied disciplines, have been a great lesson to me, a source of great inspiration over more than 25 years, from my graduate studies, to our recent work on AI, both at Infosys and with OpenAI.  Indeed when I started my AI lecture recently for Infoscions, not happy with any of the recent work I saw, I went back to a paper Marvin wrote before I was born ("Steps Towards Artificial Intelligence").

As sad as I am, and countless others are at his passing, perhaps even sadder is his recent statement, on the current state of the work in AI, at a time when we hear about AI and its impact on our world and our lives all around us.  Last week I was in Davos at the World Economic Forum's mtg, and AI, and its feared impact on people's lives, and jobs, was the talk of the town.  I hosted a panel with some key experts as well, to try and add something hopefully thoughtful, to all these voices, but perhaps just added more to the noise, and all along I kept thinking of how Marvin would have reacted to all that sound, all those alarms.  Perhaps he'd have chuckled, before unleashing a typical Marvin zinger that would put things in perspective, and yet enlighten.  Despite the widespread interest in, and hype around, AI, we are nowhere close to implementing many of Marvin's ideas, including his work in the society of mind, which he published ~25 years ago.

So in looking back on his life, and reflecting on his passing, perhaps the best we can all resolve to do is to live his dream, his aspiration, of building systems that get ever closer to Artificial Intelligence, but to do so in a way that he would have been proud of; his purposefulness and integrity, his gang of experimenters, his childlike curiosity, his "model railroad club", his instinct to look at things from many different perspectives.  That a purposeful, unencumbered, pursuit of artificial intelligence may in the process get us that much closer to our natural spirituality.

Upon hearing the news of Marvin's passing, Alan Kay, his friend for the last 50 odd years, said to me "... there was no one ever like him."  So true.

R.I.P Marvin.  There was no one ever like you.  We will miss you...


Pushkar Sawant said...

I am a student in India. I was in touch with Marvin Minsky for a number of years over AI research. He was willing to write an enthusiastic recommendation for me for a transfer undergrad admission to the US. (The process didnt work out, for some other local reasons). I couldnt get a heavenly opportunity of a job in his group owing to lack of funding for his research. The latest with him was that he was willing to write a letter for direct admission to graduate school in the US.

For the last 2 years he went completely out of touch, owing to his health.

A 60-page theoretical research document in the areas of 'Commonsense Knowledge and Reasoning' and 'NLP', unfortunately couldnt reach him.

Anubhav said...

Hi Vishal,

Wanted to drop in a post card to you about a few thoughts about Marvin. If you can help out with your office address, would be happy to write in.


Chetan Krishna said...

Great fan of you sir......hope I'll meet to you one day.
And yes hearty congratulations for your success on INFOSYS.

Prashant Kulkarni said...

Agree with what you said about him. I read about him way back in 1992 when I had purchased a book titled Machinery of the Mind by George Johnson, in which author had given many references to his work.


Achuthanandan J said...

This writting touch my heart even i am frist time hearing about him at this time it is enlightned me the guru bakthi of Mr VISHAL SIKKA that is a great charater of a person who grows fast in life.

Achuthanandan J said...

This writting touch my heart even i am frist time hearing about him at this time it is enlightned me the guru bakthi of Mr VISHAL SIKKA that is a great charater of a person who grows fast in life.

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