Biography:Marvin Minsky

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Short description: American cognitive scientist (1927–2016)
Marvin Minsky
Marvin Minsky at OLPCb.jpg
Minsky in 2008
Born(1927-08-09)August 9, 1927
New York City , New York, U.S.
DiedJanuary 24, 2016(2016-01-24) (aged 88)
Boston, Massachusetts , U.S.
CitizenshipUnited States
EducationPhillips Academy
Alma materHarvard University (BA)
Princeton University (PhD)
Gloria Rudisch (m. 1952)
Scientific career
InstitutionsMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
ThesisTheory of Neural-Analog Reinforcement Systems and Its Application to the Brain Model Problem (1954)
Doctoral advisorAlbert W. Tucker[1][2]
InfluencedDavid Waltz

Marvin Lee Minsky (August 9, 1927 – January 24, 2016) was an American cognitive and computer scientist concerned largely with research of artificial intelligence (AI), co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AI laboratory, and author of several texts concerning AI and philosophy.[3][4][5][6]

Minsky received many accolades and honors, including the 1969 Turing Award.


Marvin Lee Minsky was born in New York City, to an eye surgeon father, Henry, and to a mother, Fannie (Reiser), who was a Zionist activist.[6][7][8] His family was Jewish. He attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School and the Bronx High School of Science. He later attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts . He then served in the US Navy from 1944 to 1945. He received a B.A. in mathematics from Harvard University in 1950 and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton University in 1954. His doctoral dissertation was titled "Theory of neural-analog reinforcement systems and its application to the brain-model problem."[9][10][11] He was a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows from 1954 to 1957.[12][13]

He was on the MIT faculty from 1958 to his death. He joined the staff at MIT Lincoln Laboratory in 1958, and a year later he and John McCarthy initiated what is, (As of 2019), named the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.[14][15] He was the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Contributions in computer science

3D profile of a coin (partial) measured with a modern confocal white light microscope

Minsky's inventions include the first head-mounted graphical display (1963)[16] and the confocal microscope[17][note 1] (1957, a predecessor to today's widely used confocal laser scanning microscope). He developed, with Seymour Papert, the first Logo "turtle". Minsky also built, in 1951, the first randomly wired neural network learning machine, SNARC. In 1962, Minsky worked on small universal Turing machines and published his well-known 7-state, 4-symbol machine.[18]

Minsky's book Perceptrons (written with Seymour Papert) attacked the work of Frank Rosenblatt, and became the foundational work in the analysis of artificial neural networks. The book is the center of a controversy in the history of AI, as some claim it to have had great importance in discouraging research of neural networks in the 1970s, and contributing to the so-called "AI winter".[19] He also founded several other AI models. His paper A framework for representing knowledge[20] created a new paradigm in knowledge representation. While his Perceptrons is now more a historical than practical book, the theory of frames is in wide use.[21] Minsky also wrote of the possibility that extraterrestrial life may think like humans, permitting communication.[22]

In the early 1970s, at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, Minsky and Papert started developing what came to be known as the Society of Mind theory. The theory attempts to explain how what we call intelligence could be a product of the interaction of non-intelligent parts. Minsky says that the biggest source of ideas about the theory came from his work in trying to create a machine that uses a robotic arm, a video camera, and a computer to build with children's blocks. In 1986, Minsky published The Society of Mind, a comprehensive book on the theory which, unlike most of his previously published work, was written for the general public.

In November 2006, Minsky published The Emotion Machine, a book that critiques many popular theories of how human minds work and suggests alternative theories, often replacing simple ideas with more complex ones. Recent drafts of the book are freely available from his webpage.[23]

Role in popular culture

Minsky was an adviser[24] on Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey; one of the movie's characters, Victor Kaminski, was named in Minsky's honor.[25] Minsky is mentioned explicitly in Arthur C. Clarke's derivative novel of the same name, where he is portrayed as achieving a crucial break-through in artificial intelligence in the then-future 1980s, paving the way for HAL 9000 in the early 21st century:

In the 1980s, Minsky and Good had shown how artificial neural networks could be generated automatically—self replicated—in accordance with any arbitrary learning program. Artificial brains could be grown by a process strikingly analogous to the development of a human brain. In any given case, the precise details would never be known, and even if they were, they would be millions of times too complex for human understanding.[26]

In Fargo Season 3 episode 3 (titled "The Law of Non-Contradiction"), at least two allusions are made to Minsky. The first, through the depiction of a "useless machine": a device that was invented by Minsky as a philosophical joke. The second, through the depiction of an animation of a robot called "minsky" - a character in a sci-fi novel called "The Planet Wyh".

Personal life

The Minskytron or "Three Position Display" running on the Computer History Museum's PDP-1, 2007

In 1952, Minsky married pediatrician Gloria Rudisch; together they had three children.[27] Minsky was a talented improvisational pianist[28] who published musings on the relations between music and psychology.


Minsky was an atheist.[29] He was a signatory to the Scientists' Open Letter on Cryonics.[30]

He was a critic of the Loebner Prize for conversational robots,[31] and argued that a fundamental difference between humans and machines was that while humans are machines, they are machines in which intelligence emerges from the interplay of the many unintelligent but semi-autonomous agents that comprise the brain.[32] He argued that "somewhere down the line, some computers will become more intelligent than most people," but that it was very hard to predict how fast progress would be.[33] He cautioned that an artificial superintelligence designed to solve an innocuous mathematical problem might decide to assume control of Earth's resources to build supercomputers to help achieve its goal,[34] but believed that such negative scenarios are "hard to take seriously" because he felt confident that AI would go through a lot of testing before being deployed.[35]

Association with Jeffrey Epstein

Minsky received a $100,000 research grant from Jeffrey Epstein in 2002, four years before Epstein's first arrest for sex offenses; it was the first from Epstein to MIT. Minsky received no further research grants from him.[36][37]

Minsky organized two academic symposia on Epstein's private island Little Saint James, one in 2002 and another in 2011, after Epstein was a registered sex offender.[38] Virginia Giuffre testified in a 2015 deposition in her defamation lawsuit against Epstein's associate Ghislaine Maxwell that Maxwell "directed" her to have sex with Minsky among others. There has been no allegation that sex between them took place nor a lawsuit against Minsky's estate.[39] Minsky's widow, Gloria Rudisch, says that he could not have had sex with any of the women at Epstein's residences, as they were always together during all of the visits to Epstein's residences.[40][41]


In January 2016 Minsky died of a cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of 88.[42] Minsky was a member of Alcor Life Extension Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board.[43] Alcor will neither confirm nor deny whether Minsky was cryonically preserved.[44]

Bibliography (selected)

  • 1967 – Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines, Prentice-Hall
  • 1986 – The Society of Mind
  • 2006 – The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind

Awards and affiliations

Minsky won the Turing Award (the greatest distinction in computer science)[32] in 1969, the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement in 1982,[45] the Japan Prize in 1990, the IJCAI Award for Research Excellence for 1991, and the Benjamin Franklin Medal from the Franklin Institute for 2001.[46] In 2006, he was inducted as a Fellow of the Computer History Museum "for co-founding the field of artificial intelligence, creating early neural networks and robots, and developing theories of human and machine cognition."[47] In 2011, Minsky was inducted into IEEE Intelligent Systems' AI Hall of Fame for the "significant contributions to the field of AI and intelligent systems".[48][49] In 2014, Minsky won the Dan David Prize for "Artificial Intelligence, the Digital Mind".[50] He was also awarded with the 2013 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Information and Communication Technologies category.[51]

Minsky was affiliated with the following organizations:

  • United States National Academy of Engineering[16]
  • United States National Academy of Sciences[16]
  • Extropy Institute's Council of Advisors[52]
  • Alcor Life Extension Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board[43]
  • kynamatrix Research Network's Board of Directors[53]

Media appearances

  • Future Fantastic (1996)
  • Machine Dreams (1988)

See also

  • List of pioneers in computer science


  1. The patent for Minsky's Microscopy Apparatus was applied for in 1957, and subsequently granted US Patent Number 3,013,467 in 1961. According to his published biography on the MIT Media Lab webpage, "In 1956, when a Junior Fellow at Harvard, Minsky invented and built the first Confocal Scanning Microscope, an optical instrument with unprecedented resolution and image quality".


  1. Marvin Lee Minsky at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  2. Marvin Lee Minsky at the AI Genealogy Project.
  3. {{DBLP}} template missing ID and not present in Wikidata.
  4. List of publications from Microsoft Academic
  5. "Google Scholar". 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Winston, Patrick Henry (2016). "Marvin L. Minsky (1927-2016)". Nature 530 (7590): 282. doi:10.1038/530282a. PMID 26887486. Bibcode2016Natur.530..282W. 
  7. Swedin, Eric Gottfrid (August 10, 2005). Science in the Contemporary World: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 188. "marvin minsky jewish." 
  8. Campbell-Kelly, Martin (February 3, 2016). "Marvin Minsky obituary". 
  9. Minsky, Marvin (July 31, 1954). "Theory of neural-analog reinforcement systems and its application to the brain-model problem". 
  10. Minsky, Marvin Lee (1954). Theory of Neural-Analog Reinforcement Systems and Its Application to the Brain Model Problem (PhD thesis). Princeton University. OCLC 3020680. ProQuest 301998727.
  11. Hillis, Danny (2007). "In Honor of Marvin Minsky's Contributions on his 80th Birthday". AI Magazine 28 (4): 103–110. Retrieved November 24, 2010. 
  12. Society of Fellows, Listed by Term
  13. "Marvin Minsky, Ph.D. Biography and Interview". American Academy of Achievement. 
  14. Horgan, John (November 1993). "Profile: Marvin L. Minsky: The Mastermind of Artificial Intelligence". Scientific American 269 (5): 14–15. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1193-35. Bibcode1993SciAm.269e..35H. 
  15. Rifkin, Glenn (28 January 2016). "Marvin Minsky, pioneer in artificial intelligence, dies at 88". MIT. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 "Brief Academic Biography of Marvin Minsky". 
  17. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named confocal
  18. Turlough Neary, Damien Woods, "Small Weakly Universal Turing Machines", Machines, Computations, and Universality 2007, proceedings, Orleans, France, September 10–13, 2007, ISBN 3540745920, p. 262-263
  19. Olazaran, Mikel (August 1996). "A Sociological Study of the Official History of the Perceptrons Controversy". Social Studies of Science 26 (3): 611–659. doi:10.1177/030631296026003005. 
  20. Minsky, M. (1975). A framework for representing knowledge. In P. H. Winston (Ed.), The psychology of computer vision. New York: McGraw-Hill Book.
  21. "Minsky's frame system theory". Proceedings of the 1975 workshop on Theoretical issues in natural language processing – TINLAP '75. 1975. pp. 104–116. doi:10.3115/980190.980222. 
  22. Minsky, Marvin (April 1985). "Communication with Alien Intelligence". Byte (Peterborough, New Hampshire: UBM Technology Group) 10 (4): 127. Retrieved July 30, 2019. 
  23. "Marvin Minsky's Home Page". 
  24. For more, see this interview, "Scientist on the Set: An Interview with Marvin Minsky, Section 03". 
  25. "AI pioneer Marvin Minsky dies aged 88". BBC News. 26 January 2016. 
  26. Clarke, Arthur C. (April 1968). 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hutchinson, UK
    New American Library, US. ISBN 0-453-00269-2.
  27. "R.I.P. Marvin Minsky". Washington Post. 26 January 2016. 
  28. "Obituary: Marvin Minsky, 88; MIT professor helped found field of artificial intelligence". Boston Globe. 26 January 2016. 
  29. Lederman, Leon M.; Scheppler, Judith A. (2001). "Marvin Minsky: Mind Maker". Portraits of Great American Scientists. Prometheus Books. p. 74. ISBN 9781573929325. "Another area where he "goes against the flow" is in his spiritual beliefs. As far as religion is concerned, he's a confirmed atheist. "I think it [religion] is a contagious mental disease. ... The brain has a need to believe it knows a reason for things." 
  30. "SCIENTISTS' OPEN LETTER ON CRYONICS". The Science of Cryonics. March 19, 2004. 
  31. Technology |Artificial stupidity
  32. 32.0 32.1 "Marvin Minsky, Pioneer in Artificial Intelligence, Dies at 88". The New York Times. January 25, 2016. 
  33. "For artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, computers have soul". Jerusalem Post. 13 May 2014. 
  34. Russell, Stuart J.; Norvig, Peter (2003). "Section 26.3: The Ethics and Risks of Developing Artificial Intelligence". Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0137903955. "Similarly, Marvin Minsky once suggested that an AI program designed to solve the Riemann Hypothesis might end up taking over all the resources of Earth to build more powerful supercomputers to help achieve its goal." 
  35. Achenbach, Joel (6 January 2016). "Marvin Minsky, an architect of artificial intelligence, dies at 88". Washington Post. 
  36. Subbaraman, Nidhi (2020-01-10). "MIT review of Epstein donations finds "significant mistakes of judgment"" (in en). Nature. doi:10.1038/d41586-020-00072-x. PMID 33420402. 
  37. Braceras, Roberto M.; Chunias, Jennifer L.; Martin, Kevin P. (January 10, 2020). "Report Concerning Jeffrey Epstein's Interactions with the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology". pp. 9, 15. 
  38. "AI pioneer accused of having sex with trafficking victim on Jeffrey Epstein's island". The Verge. August 9, 2019. 
  39. Briquelet, Kate (September 16, 2019). "Jeffrey Epstein Accuser Names Powerful Men in Alleged Sex Ring". The Daily Beast. 
  40. Carlistle, Madeline; Mansoor, Sanya (August 14, 2019). "The Jeffrey Epstein Investigation Continues After His Death. Here's Who Else Could Be Investigated". Time (magazine). Retrieved July 28, 2019. "Minsky’s widow, Gloria Rudisch, denied he had sex with Giuffre or any other girls". 
  41. Saul, Emily; Denney, Andrew; Eustachewich, Lia (August 9, 2019). "Jeffrey Epstein's alleged 'sex slave' reveals the men she claims she was forced to sleep with". New York Post. 
  42. Pearson, Michael (26 January 2016). "Pioneering computer scientist Marvin Minsky dies at 88". CNN. 
  43. 43.0 43.1 "Alcor Scientific Advisory Board". January 14, 2016. 
  44. "Official Alcor Statement Concerning Marvin Minsky". Alcor News. Alcor Life Extension Foundation. January 27, 2016. 
  45. "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". American Academy of Achievement. 
  46. Marvin Minsky – The Franklin Institute Awards – Laureate Database . Franklin Institute. Retrieved on March 25, 2008.
  47. "Marvin Minsky: 2006 Fellow". 
  48. "AI's Hall of Fame". IEEE Intelligent Systems 26 (4): 5–15. 2011. doi:10.1109/MIS.2011.64. Retrieved September 4, 2015. 
  49. "IEEE Computer Society Magazine Honors Artificial Intelligence Leaders". August 24, 2011.  Press release source: PRWeb (Vocus).
  50. "Dan David prize 2014 winners". May 15, 2014. 
  51. "MIT artificial intelligence, robotics pioneer feted: Award celebrates Minsky's career". August 24, 2011. 
  52. "Extropy Institute Directors & Advisors". 
  53. "kynamatrix Research Network : About". 

External links