While still a teenager, Marvin Minsky began focusing on what would become his life’s work: unraveling the mystery of intelligence.
“Around the end of high school, I had started thinking about thinking,” he told The New Yorker magazine in 1981. “One of the things that got me started was wondering why it was so hard to learn mathematics. You take an hour a page to read this thing, and still it doesn’t make sense. Then, suddenly, it becomes so easy it seems trivial. I began to wonder about the learning process and about learning machines.”
As a Harvard College undergraduate in the late 1940s, he studied everything at once. He had laboratories in the biology and psychology departments and also studied composing, yet any single field seemed too confining for his restless intellect. “Genetics seemed to be pretty interesting, because nobody knew yet how it worked. But I wasn’t sure that it was profound,” he told The New Yorker. “The problems of physics seemed profound and solvable. It might have been nice to do physics. But the problem of intelligence seemed hopelessly profound. I can’t remember considering anything else worth doing.”
Dr. Minsky, a longtime Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who was a founder of the field of artificial intelligence, died of a cerebral hemorrhage Sunday in Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was 88 and lived in Brookline.
In 1959, with his colleague John McCarthy, Dr. Minsky founded what is now MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
Several years earlier, while Dr. Minsky was a doctoral student at Princeton University, he built what many consider the first learning machine, a neural network simulator. After Princeton, he was selected to be one of Harvard’s prestigious junior fellows and invented the confocal scanning microscope, which became a standard tool in biological sciences. At MIT, he built mechanical hands and an arm that were precursors to modern robotics.
Meanwhile, Dr. Minsky attended the summer research conference at Dartmouth College in 1956 that led to the creation of artificial intelligence, which he helped refine and define in his MIT lab.
“You can’t just categorize him in one area at all. He was such a Renaissance man,” Danny Hillis, an inventor who cofounded the Thinking Machines supercomputer maker, said of Dr. Minsky. “He was really not just interdisciplinary. He was antidisciplinary in the sense that he saw no boundaries between disciplines.”
Hillis added that Dr. Minsky “made everybody around him smarter. I feel like Marvin really taught me to think, and many people in the field feel that way, too. He’s truly one of the great minds of the 20th century.”
Two of Dr. Minsky’s books — “The Society of Mind,” published in the mid-1980s, and “The Emotion Machine,” published in 2006 — examine the challenges of creating artificial intelligence.
In the chapter titled “The Soul” in “Society of Mind,” he wrote: “People ask if machines can have souls. And I ask back whether souls can learn.” For his chapter on consciousness, Dr. Minsky wrote: “In real life, you often have to deal with things you don’t completely understand. You drive a car, not knowing how the engine works. . . . Most strange of all, you drive your body and your mind, not knowing how your own self works. Isn’t it amazing that we can think, not knowing what it means to think? Isn’t it remarkable that we can get ideas, yet not explain what ideas are?”
The book consists of numerous single-page mini-chapters that contain observations such as: “In science, one can learn the most by studying what seems the least.”
“Marvin always thought easy problems are actually very hard, and the hard ones are actually easy,” said Nicholas Negroponte, who cofounded the MIT Media Lab and was its first director.
Negroponte added that while Dr. Minsky’s accomplishments are well-documented, it’s important to remember that “Marvin’s a character. Marvin was extremely funny. He talked in riddles and it all made sense. When he said something funny, you would laugh three days later — and again and again. It was very deep stuff.”
Born in New York City, Dr. Minsky grew up in Manhattan and the Bronx. He was the middle child and only son of Dr. Henry Minsky, an eye surgeon, and the former Fannie Reiser, a Jewish activist. He attended the progressive Fieldston School and then went to the Bronx High School of Science, until his parents sent him to Phillips Academy in Andover his senior year to increase his chances of getting into a top university.
After high school, at 17, he enlisted in the Navy at the end of World War II and briefly was sent to the Midwest for electronics training in 1945. When the war was done, he went to Harvard, from which he graduated in 1950 with a bachelor’s in mathematics. He received his doctorate, also in mathematics, from Princeton in 1954.
In 1952, he married Dr. Gloria Rudisch, a pediatrician. They moved to Greater Boston when he returned to Harvard as a junior fellow, and he later began working at MIT.
His 1960 paper “Steps Toward Artificial Intelligence” is considered a seminal work in shaping the field, and Dr. Minsky’s collaborations in the 1960s through the ’80s with Seymour Papert, a computer scientist and educator, helped change perceptions of how humans learn.
Among Dr. Minsky’s honors was the prestigious Turing Award, in 1969, for contributions to computer science. In 2014, he received the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the information and communication technologies category.
“Marvin’s impact was enormous,” Patrick Winston, who ran MIT’s artificial intelligence lab after Dr. Minsky stepped down, wrote on his webpage. Winston added that people arrived at the lab “from everywhere to benefit from his wisdom and to enjoy his deep insights, lightning-fast analyses, and clever jokes. They all understood they were witnessing an exciting scientific revolution. They all wanted to be part of it.”
Of his mentor, Winston wrote: “I will miss him at a level beyond description.”
In addition to his wife, Dr. Minsky leaves two daughters, Margaret of Greenfield and Juliana of Santa Barbara, Calif.; a son, Henry of Newton; a sister, Ruth Amster of New York City; and four grandchildren.
A private service will be held, and a celebration of Dr. Minsky’s life will be announced.
“It’s easy to talk about his intellectual contributions because they were so dramatic, but he also contributed a kind of playful spirit,” said Hillis, who credited Dr. Minsky with inspiring the intellectual joie de vivre prevalent in academic and industry high-tech labs.
One source of Dr. Minsky’s joy was music, and he was one of the few pianists who could improvise classical fugues. “He always said there were two kinds of people in life: composers and improvisers. Marvin absolutely was an improviser,” said Tod Machover, the Muriel R. Cooper professor of music and media at the MIT Media Lab. As with his other intellectual realms, “Marvin was fearless about asking basic questions about music that nobody else would ever ask,” Machover said.
In an online edition of Dr. Minsky’s paper “Music, Mind, and Meaning,” which includes recordings of his playing, he invoked a musical example that easily could be a description of his own approach to explaining the complexities of intelligence.
“Compare a sonata to a teacher,” he wrote. “The teacher gets the pupils’ attention, either dramatically or by the quiet trick of speaking softly. Next, the teacher presents the elements carefully, not introducing too many new ideas or developing them too far, for until the basics are learned the pupils cannot build on them. So, at first, the teacher repeats a lot. Sonatas, too, explain first one idea, then another, and then recapitulate it all.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.