Obituaries

Artificial Intelligence Pioneer and Transhumanist Marvin Minsky Dies at Age 88

Until the time that Minsky is either revived or uploaded, may he rest in peace

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MarvinMinsky
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Marvin Minsky founded what became M.I.T.'s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 1959. The New York Times' obituary notes:

Marvin Minsky, who combined a scientist's thirst for knowledge with a philosopher's quest for truth as a pioneering explorer of artificial intelligence, work that helped inspire the creation of the personal computer and the Internet, died on Sunday night in Boston. He was 88. …

Well before the advent of the microprocessor and the supercomputer, Professor Minsky, a revered computer science educator at M.I.T., laid the foundation for the field of artificial intelligence by demonstrating the possibilities of imparting common-sense reasoning to computers.

I had the pleasure and privilege of chatting with Minsky a couple of times at various transhumanist events. As I reported from Transvision 2007:

On Wednesday at Transvision 2007, Marvin Minsky, the artificial intelligence guru who heads up MIT's Media Lab, puckishly suggested we could solve any population problem by uploading the minds of 10 billion people and running them on a computer that occupies a few cubic meters and costs only a few hundred dollars to run. …

Minsky's talk, "Matter, Mind and Models," dealt with how he thinks the field of artificial intelligence (AI) went off track. He blamed "physics envy" on the part of AI researchers who sought some simple set of principles that would underlie and explain intelligence. This strategy failed, but researchers made a lot of progress in "narrow" AI. Minsky argued that human brains have a lot of different "ways to think" so that if one way doesn't work or solve the problem, it doesn't get stuck. Brains can split problems into parts, simplify, make analogies, and so forth. Current AI programs generally rely on just one main strategy and therefore tend to get stuck. In addition, Minsky claimed that the evolutionarily recent parts of the human brain recognize patterns of activity in other parts of the brain. In particular, those parts of the brain recognize when other parts are trying to solve problems. The brain can reflect on its own activities. Reflection is the missing ingredient in narrow AI research-reinforcement learning networks, rule-bases systems, neural networks, and statistical inference.

Minsky is not shy about speculating on what the future may hold. Once researchers understand how brains work, "we will discover ways to upload our minds into machines." He predicted that our AI descendants (what AI researcher Hans Moravec called our mind children) will eventually escape from this planet and spread throughout the universe. "If we are the only intelligence in the universe, then we are obligated to ensure that the universe remains meaningful," said Minsky. We sat at a table together over lunch and it was amusing to see some of the more Marxist-inclined transhumanists express horror when Minsky explained that he thought that democracy was not such a good idea. Why would anyone want to be governed by a majority of stupid people, he wondered.

Minsky is evidently a member of Alcor, and so will likely be cryopreserved. Until the time that he is either revived or uploaded, may he rest in peace.

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  1. Marxist-inclined transhumanists

    How does that even happen? If I remember correctly, Max More was basically Rand-lite, no?

    1. HM: My buddy James Hughes comes to mind.

      1. And what if I don’t want Hughes’s consciousness to be uploaded into my hive mind? Does he support the use of force to do so? Do are consciousness singularities allowed freedom of association?

    2. What are the Borg if not the New Soviet Man?

      1. What are the Borg if not the New Soviet Man?

        Outside of sci-fi BDSM fandom, I can’t imagine anyone looking at the Borg and thinking “Yeah, they have the right idea.”

        1. Transcendance of the self, a sense of belonging, and unity of purpose in something greater than yourself are things that a lot of people want, and a number of belief systems promise.

          1. I get that, but I never got the sense that they were portrayed as good things in the Borg context. It always seemed to be that the Borg were portrayed as getting it wrong; whereas, the selfless heroes of Starfleet are the ones who got it right.

            1. The Borg are the Federation’s dark reflection.

              1. The real heroes of the story are the Ferengi. Much of the show was just Federation propaganda to make them look bad.

              2. I thought they were Micahel Bloomberg’s transhumanized fan club.

        2. Oh, I think a lot of people would sign right up if given the chance:

          * No personal responsibility, but you’re taken care of from cradle to grave.
          * Your consciousness is every part of that society, including its leaders and you are part of theirs.
          * You’re never part of the “out” group.
          * You’re perpetually free from sin because any bad desires are shared by the entire collective.

          Not my cup of tea. And I doubt that of many here. But, for a lot of people, it really is the embodiment of perfection.

      2. I read an interview with some of the writers who helped create the borg plot line. They were genuinely shocked and surprised that their ultimate enemy turned out to be an allegory of collectivism. Considering many of the leftist tropes of Star Trek, it surprised me at the time.

        This is the great thing about Sci-Fi. Often times by creating fantastical settings you put aside your prejudice and must go where your premises take you. Kudos to the writers that they didn’t try to significantly change it during the run of the series. It is interesting that when they had the chance, they introduced a queen borg in the movie to lessen the idea of a collective.

          1. It’s a shame Roddenberry lived as long as he did.

          2. So what you’re saying is that the TNG writers trolled Roddenberry harder than Epi and Sugarfree could have ever dreamed it was possible to troll a commie?

              1. There is something deeply satisfying in the fact that so much managed to sneak in under the nose of that anti-individualist “genius”.

                1. I love ST TOS. It had its preachiness, but the ideals were pretty benign. Move past race, fight only in self-defense, science, etc. Pretty standard fare. And back then Roddenberry was a TV show creator. Yes a leftie at heart. But he made a fun show, with the heroic capt, the logical 1st officer and the conscience in Dr. McCoy.

                  Then, somewhere along the way, he thought he got smart. And rather than a fun TV show, we get the socialist utopia in onesies. At least the writers took control from him after the first couple of seasons, and the show started to get more fun.

    3. You know who else wanted to transform humanity while relying on a totalitarian governing philosophy?

      1. Obama?

      2. The Energizer Bunny?

        No?. Wait, what was the question again?

      3. Guardian/Colossus? (See that, incorporated AI into your Godwin!!)

  2. In the days when Sussman was a novice, Minsky once came to him as he sat hacking at the PDP-6.

    “What are you doing?” asked Minsky.

    “I am training a randomly wired neural net to play Tic-tac-toe,” Sussman replied.

    “Why is the net wired randomly?” asked Minsky.

    “I do not want it to have any preconceptions of how to play,” Sussman said.

    Minsky then shut his eyes.

    “Why do you close your eyes?” Sussman asked his teacher.

    “So that the room will be empty.”

    At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.

    RIP, Dr. Minsky.

  3. Yet Chomsky still lives.

    1. I know, right? Though, I’d like to see Lakoff kick the bucket first.

      1. True. Chomsky seems to be honest in his opinions. Lakoff is a political hack.

        1. I agree about Chomsky. He gets confused sometimes, and when confronted with certain realities gets a little squishy with his own beliefs, but yeah.

          1. Sometimes?

            Anybody who considers themselves an anarcho-socialist is confused at their very core.

        2. Yeah, but Chomsky is wrong about language and Lakoff is right. Mostly. He and I spar about politics, but I think his time in the limelight has gone now.

  4. Minsky’s pulling 7th shift betwixt the uncommon parallels.

  5. I came here to read about AI, and I find myself reading about William Shatner. Funny how things take you in directions you didn’t expect.

  6. “we could solve any population problem by uploading the minds of 10 billion people and running them on a computer”

    How would this solve any population problem? When finished, you’d still have 10 billion people, plus a computer now. How has this solved anything?

    1. I would encourage you to expand your reading list to include futurists and technologists who consider the implications of uploading people into the cloud.

      If you did, I am sure you would consider ideas which I have considered and which you have not, in your ignorance, and this would expand your mind.

      Can you admit that you know very little about people in the cloud, hence your question?

      This is all very wise and knowing.

      1. “I would encourage you to expand your reading list”

        I doubt that would answer my question. “People” aren’t uploaded. Minsky was talking about minds being uploaded, and the people (minus their minds) presumably stay unuploaded. How is this a solution to anything?

        1. I doubt that would answer my question.

          If you wish to remain in ignorance, that’s a good perspective.

          If, however, you desire enlightenment, I would encourage you to expand your reading list to include futurists and technologists who consider the implications of uploading people into the cloud. Then, you would have an answer, even if only to your doubts.

          1. This your new bag? You might want to bump up your abusiveness. Standards to maintain and all that.

            1. You could address my point directly, and show how 10 billion people, in the cloud, existing in a purely digital space, could cause a population problem. There is no scarcity in digital space, after all.

              Instead, you seem to want to play some sort of passive aggressive blame game, rather than address the point directly. And that is because you can’t: people in the cloud pose no population problem.

              1. Brian, I think you understand the point here, and are being deliberately obtuse.

                1. I think Brian IS an AI who is simply running a word generation algorithm based on mtrueman’s input.

                  Either that or Brian is just having a little fun with him.

              2. “There is no scarcity in digital space”

                No scarcity, no people either. You can’t store a person in computer memory, let alone upload a person. And certainly not 10 billion of them.

                1. The topic at hand is the future, which isn’t constrained by the present. Genius may seem like insanity or magic to simple people and laypersons, but it is because genius lacks such constraints that it can propel us to a future that some can’t even imagine.

                  For example, two centuries ago, flight was impossible, and the idea of a man walking on the moon was the height of fantasy.

                  I’m still waiting for you to show me how 10 billion people in the cloud could cause a population problem.

                  Can you just admit that it wouldn’t? That would be honest.

                  1. “I’m still waiting for you to show me how 10 billion people in the cloud could cause a population problem.”

                    You’ve misunderstood. I don’t have a problem with the 10 billion uploaded minds. I’m pointing out that 10 billion unuploaded mindless bodies are still 10 billion unuploaded bodies whether their minds are in the cloud or anywhere else. In other words, rather than solving any population problem, you’ve only managed to strip 10 billion of their minds. To repeat my original question, how has this solved anything?

                    1. But you’ve proved the point. 10 billion mindless bodies are bodies with no minds. Because their minds are on the cloud, where scarcity does not exist. Therefore, there is no population problem. You’re agreeing with me, then. You should have just come out and said so.

                    2. “Therefore, there is no population problem.”

                      You mean because the remaining bodies are dead? No mind, no problem, as Stalin said.

                      I’m disagreeing with you. Killing 10 billion is a monstrous solution, and whatever you think, I doubt Minsky had this in mind.

                    3. Who said anything about killing people? We’re talking about minds in the cloud.

                      Marvin Minsky never advocated killing 10 billion people. Have you read his work? It sounds like you haven’t. Perhaps if you did, it would open your mind, and you would consider ideas that you seem to be unable to grasp.

                      Maybe, one day, you could to the equivalent, and found your own AI lab. Or, whatever you can closely approximate to that.

                    4. “We’re talking about minds in the cloud.”

                      Incorrect. You are talking about minds (and people) in clouds. I’m talking about bodies on earth. Minsky didn’t mention them, even puckishly. You see the difference? Minds, bodies – can’t make it any clearer than that.

                    5. Minds in the cloud exist in a purely digital space, and have no bodies.

                      You keep talking about bodies on earth. That’s not minds in the cloud.

                      If you can show me how minds in the cloud cause a population problem, then please go ahead. I keep waiting for you to do this, but you won’t, because you can’t.

                      There is no scarcity in the cloud, and you seem to insist on talking about everything else but that, in order to make some irrelevant scarcity argument. Why that is, is beyond me.

                      Can you just admit that you know little about Minsky’s work?

                    6. You’ve misunderstood. I don’t have a problem with the 10 billion uploaded minds. I’m pointing out that 10 billion unuploaded mindless bodies are still 10 billion unuploaded bodies whether their minds are in the cloud or anywhere else. In other words, rather than solving any population problem, you’ve only managed to strip 10 billion of their minds. To repeat my original question, how has this solved anything?

                    7. Because 10 billion minds are in the cloud, where there is no scarcity.

                      For some reason, you are focused on the bodies that aren’t in the cloud. Sorry, but that doesn’t say anything about the minds in the cloud.

                      Again: please show me how 10 billion minds in the cloud have a population problem. I keep asking, but you never answer, and I’m pretty sure I understand why.

                      I can tell that this is difficult for you to understand, as the ideas of true genius often are.

                      I would suggest that you expand your reading to include more of Minsky’s work. Perhaps you will consider ideas which I find comprehendible, but you do not, and your mind will open.

                    8. “you are focused on the bodies that aren’t in the cloud”

                      Yes, got in one. Well almost one.

                    9. You should probably read more. Perhaps you will get another.

                    10. “You should probably read more.”

                      I’m enjoying JR by Gaddis at the moment. I think it’s his best work.

                    11. I would suggest that you expand your reading to include more of Minsky’s work. Perhaps you will consider ideas which I find comprehendible, but you do not, and your mind will open.

                    12. “I would suggest that you expand your reading to include more of Minsky’s work.”

                      I can’t agree with you here. Unless your interest is historical, I suggest something more recent. Computers are changing all the time and it’s a real struggle to keep up. If AI is your thing, you might like to study Haskell, a neat little language similar to Lisp.

                    13. Apparently, it’s insufficient for understanding how minds in the cloud work.

                      They have no bodies. Thus, they have no scarcity.

                      I keep asking you to explain how 10 billion people in he cloud could have a population problem. And you agree with me.

                      Do you understand that you agree with me? That there is no scarcity in the digital space?

                    14. “That there is no scarcity in the digital space?”

                      Hey yo! There is Haskell in digital space and if you are interested in AI that’s where I suggest you start. Leave the angels-dancing-on-pinheads ruminating to the blow hards and know nothings.

                    15. There you go, insulting people.

                      It says more about you then it does about them, my friend.

                    16. It’s called self deprecation. Read me more closely and you’ll catch on to my style. Everyone but you apparently know that I’m the biggest blow hard and know nothing that posts here.

                    17. You shouldn’t have such a negative self-image. Studies show that it’s psychologically unhealthy, and can lead to depression and suicide.

                      You may think that projecting your self-hatred into others is numerous, but most people find it insulting.

                      Depression and suicide aren’t the vibes you want to be sending people.

                    18. It’s called hyperbole, a literary device. But forget about that. Let’s talk about me, This is just another example of the many gems of wit that keep you and your ilk reading and responding to me.

                    19. Oh, that’s better. Both minimization and exaggeration are common psychological coping mechanism.

                      Exxageration is typically an attention seeking gesture, meant to boost self-esteem.

                      That’s the spirit!

                    20. Exxageration is…

                      a literary device. Makes for a better reading experience. I’m glad you approve and I’m glad you’ve seen fit to drop your harping on about whatever bad thing I was doing before, something about the lack of scarcity in cyber space.

                    21. You’re not disagreeing with me. Literary devices are employed for psychological reasons, especially when that literature consists of a conversation between two people, rather than a work regarded as excellent or worth significant merit (but then, we are talking exaggeration, aren’t we?)

                      Exaggeration is frequently employed to boost self-esteem, by inflating struggles and accomplishment, in classic attention-seeking (“Mom, I caught a fish as big as me!”, etc.)

                      It’s your self esteem. Whatever works, works. It’s better then negative self-image broadcasting.

                    22. “You’re not disagreeing with me.”

                      If I were I’d say so. I’ve opened up a response to you in outright disagreement several times already in this thread. If I disagree with you, I will let you know it.

                    23. But you do agree that there’s no scarcity in cyber space. Therefore, billions of people in cyberspace can’t cause a population problem.

                      We are of one mind.

                    24. You’ve misunderstood. I don’t have a problem with the 10 billion uploaded minds. I’m pointing out that 10 billion unuploaded mindless bodies are still 10 billion unuploaded bodies whether their minds are in the cloud or anywhere else. In other words, rather than solving any population problem, you’ve only managed to strip 10 billion of their minds. To repeat my original question, how has this solved anything?

                    25. You’re still agreeing with me.

                      I don’t have a problem with the 10 billion uploaded minds.

                      Agreed. There are 10 billion minds in the cloud, where scarcity does not exist. Therefore, there can be no population problem. And you agree with me, and you have no problem with that.

                      In other words, rather than solving any population problem, you’ve only managed to strip 10 billion of their minds.

                      Now, you’re acting as if you don’t know what your just wrote. We haven’t stripped anyone of their minds. There the are in the cloud, were scarcity doesn’t exist. So, there is no population problem. Everyone has their minds in the cloud, and you have no problem with that.

                      I understand me, and I understand you. Apparently, you’re the only one who doesn’t understand you.

  7. “When finished, you’d still have 10 billion people,..”
    They would eat much less food and it would all be genetically modified.
    The computer would be a solar/nuclear hybrid…

  8. Why would anyone want to be governed by a majority of stupid people, he wondered.

    THIS.

    1. Why would anyone want to work for 50 years at an institute funded by the stupid?

  9. My favorite characters in Dan Simmons’ Illium/Olympos were the Moravecs.

  10. Wonder what Minsky’s views were re. God.

  11. ALCOR has at last become a corporation worth saving.

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