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MIT artificial intelligence, robotics pioneer feted

Award celebrates Minsky’s career

MIT professor emeritus Marvin Minsky, 86, said he was humbled by the foundation’s recognition.BBVA FOUNDATION

MIT professor emeritus Marvin Minsky, who led early research into robotics and artificial intelligence, has won the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the information and communication technologies category.

The award, from the charitable arm of the giant Spanish bank BBVA Group, celebrates the contributions that Minsky, 86, has made during his long career of teaching and conducting research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he cofounded the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and helped start the MIT Media Lab.

The award comes with a $540,000 prize.

Minsky wrote some of the early and most influential studies on artificial intelligence and robotics that helped give birth to the field. He even advised film director Stanley Kubrick on the making of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”


Today, Minsky teaches one course in artificial intelligence at MIT. He found out about the honor Monday night, when the organization phoned him at his Brookline home. He said he was humbled by the recognition.

“I don’t know what they think I do,” Minsky said. “I make up theories of how the mind works and when I’m lucky enough, I have some students who make careers out of that.”

And many have. His former students include Ray Kurzweil, the author and futurist who was named director of engineering at Google in 2012, and many others who have gone on to have successful careers in academics and industry. “Everyone who took his class knew they were watching a genius think out loud,” said Patrick Winston, a professor of artificial intelligence at MIT and a former Minsky student. “We all felt we were doing something very important, and we were doing it for one of the geniuses of the day.”

Minsky was also instrumental in the MIT Media Lab, a place known for being far ahead of technology trends. “Marvin has the humility that comes from being right, knowing it, and not needing to prove anything to anybody,” said Nicholas Negroponte, cofounder of the lab. “He has always been patient with me, when I said and did some very stupid things.”


Minsky said he hasn’t decided what he will do with the prize money, but said he shouldn’t have trouble finding a way to spend it. He’s planning to travel to Spain later this year to receive the prize, along with winners in seven other categories.

The BBVA Foundation awards began in 2008 to honor achievements in arts, science, and technology. The amount of prize money awarded is second only to the Nobel Prize.

Last year, former MIT professor Lotfi A. Zadeh won in information and communication technologies.

Michael B. Farrell
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