August 9, 1927, is the birth date of Marvin Minsky, the naturally intelligent mathematician who for the past 60 years has been a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence. Minsky was thinking about how to teach machines to teach themselves before machines with sufficient computing power to carry out such theoretical tasks were even on the drawing board.
Marvin Lee Minsky was born in New York City, and grew up there and in Riverdale, the Bronx. His father, Dr. Henry Minsky, headed the department of ophthalmology at Mt. Sinai Hospital; his mother, the former Fanny Reiser, was active in Zionist affairs. Marvin came between two sisters.
The family was sufficiently well-heeled that Marvin’s bar mitzvah, at Camp Modin, in Maine, in August 1940, was announced in The New York Times, and his parents could send him to the private Fieldston School. Because of the promise he showed in science and math, he transferred to the Bronx High School of Science in ninth grade, and then, for his senior year, to Phillips Andover Academy – a prep school in Massachusetts – because his parents thought it would improve his chances of being accepted to a decent college. Not that he needed the help.
After graduating in 1945, shortly before the end of World War II, Minsky enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Station to study electronics. He was discharged a year later and began his undergraduate studies at Harvard.
Google Glass – in 1963
A bachelor’s degree, in 1950, was followed by a PhD from Princeton four years later. Officially, Minsky’s field of study was mathematics. But Minsky has always had an interdisciplinary kind of curiosity: Early in college he began thinking about thinking, and so, together with math, he also immersed himself in psychology and neurophysiology.
In 1951, he built SNARC, the first neural network learning machine. Roughly, a man-made neural network is a series of electrical circuits that are meant to approximate the functions of the brain, using feedback mechanisms to learn from experience and draw conclusions.
Minsky’s inventions have included the first head-mounted graphical display, an early approximation of something like Google Glass (in 1963), and, in 1957, a prototype of the confocal scanning microscope, which allows for the production of high-resolution, 3-D microscopic images. He was prompted to develop the latter when he found that existing microscopes didn’t allow for adequately sharp images of neural networks in actual brains. It would, however, take several decades before computers had sufficient computing capability to be able to take advantage of the scanning technology invented by Minsky.
Psychology by the numbers
After three years as a Junior Society Fellow at Harvard, Minsky joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1958. It was there, a year later, that he and John McCarthy would found the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Minsky has also been very involved in the legendary MIT Media Lab, where so many cutting-edge, digitally based technologies have been developed.
On his website, Minsky explains concisely that his career has combined work “using computational ideas to characterize human psychological processes” with work intended “to endow machines with intelligence.” It has included a lot of work with robots. He served as an adviser in the making of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), and was also credited by Arthur C. Clarke – in the book that served as the basis for the film – for his early work in imagining the self-replicating artificial brain.
Like his student, the futurist (and director of engineering at Google) Ray Kurzweil, Minsky is convinced that technological advances will make it possible for human life to be extended to hundreds of years and, more radically, that the day will come when a human brain can be integrated into a robot, thus giving an individual what is essentially eternal life. With that in mind, Minsky has expressed public support for the idea of cryonics, the deep-freezing of human bodies at death for thawing at a future date when science will be able to repair their physical defects.
Minsky has been married since 1953 to Gloria Rudisch, a pediatrician; they have three children.