AI-pioneer Minsky: Temporarily dead?

The brain functions like a machine, or so according to the theory of Marvin Minsky, one of the most important pioneers of artificial intelligence. In other words, it can be recreated – made immortal by backing up its consciousness onto a computer.

Could our entire life simply be a computer simulation, like “the Matrix” from the Hollywood blockbuster of the same name? According to Marvin Minsky, this is entirely conceivable: “It’s perfectly possible that we are the production of some very powerful complicated programs running on some big computer somewhere else. And there’s really no way to distinguish that from what we call reality.” Such thoughts were typical of the mathematician, cognition researcher, computer engineer and great pioneer of Artificial Intelligence. Minsky combined science and philosophy scarcely any other, questioned conventional views – but always with a strong sense of humour:

“No computer has ever been designed that is ever aware of what it’s doing; but most of the time, we aren’t either.”

Born in 1927 in New York, Minsky studied mathematics at Harvard University and received a PhD in mathematics from Princeton University. He was scarcely 20 years old when he began to take an interest in the topic of intelligence: “Genetics seemed to be pretty interesting because nobody knew yet how it worked,” recalled Minsky at the time in an article that appeared in the “New Yorker” in 1981. “But I wasn’t sure that it was profound. 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.”

Great intelligence is the sum of many non-intelligent parts

Back then, as a youthful scientist, he laid the foundation stone for a revolutionary theory, which he expanded on during his time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and which finally led to him becoming a pioneer in Artificial Intelligence: Minsky held the view that the brain works like a machine and can therefore basically be replicated in a machine too. “The brain happens to be a meat machine,” according to one of his frequently quoted statements. “You can build a mind from many little parts, each mindless by itself.” Marvin Minsky was convinced that consciousness can be broken down into many small parts. His aim was to identify such components of the mind and understand them. Minsky’s view that the brain is built up from the interactions of many simple parts called “agents” is the basis of today’s neural networks.

Together with his Princeton colleague John McCarthy, he continued to develop the theory and gave the new scientific discipline a name at the Dartmouth Conference in 1956: Artificial Intelligence. Together McCarthy and Minsky founded the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory some three years later – the world’s most important research centre for Artificial Intelligence ever since. Many of the ideas developed there were later seized on in Silicon Valley and translated into commercial applications.

Answerable for halting research

What is interesting is that the father of Artificial Intelligence was responsible for research into the area being halted for many years: Minsky had experimented himself with neural networks in the 1960s, but renounced them in his book “Perceptrons”. Together with his co-author Seymour Papert, he highlighted the limitations of these networks – and thus brought research into this area to a standstill for decades. Most of these limitations have since been overcome, and neural networks are a core technology for AI in the present day.

However, research into AI was by far not the only work area that occupied Marvin Minsky. His Artificial Intelligence Laboratory is regarded as the birthplace for the idea that digital information should be freely available – a theory from which open-source philosophy later emerged. The institute contributed to the development of the Internet, too. Minsky also had an interest in robotics, computer vision and microscopy – his inventions in this area are still used today.

Problems of mankind could be resolved

Minsky viewed current developments in AI quite critically, as he felt they were not focused enough on creating true intelligence. In contrast to the alarmist warnings of some experts that intelligent machines would take control in the not too-distant future, Minsky most recently advocated a more philosophical view of the future: machines that master real thinking could demonstrate ways to solve some of the most significant problems facing mankind. Death may also have been at the back of his mind in this respect: He predicted that people could make themselves immortal by transferring their consciousness from the brain onto chips. “We will be immortal in this sense,” according to Minsky. When a person grows old, they simply make a backup copy of their knowledge and experience on a computer. “I think, in 100 years, people will be able to do that.”

AI-Pioneer Minsky only temporarily dead

Marvin Minsky died in January 2016 at the age of 88. Although perhaps only temporarily: shortly before his death, he was one of the signatories of the Scientists’ Open Letter on Cryonics – the deep-freezing of human bodies at death for thawing at a future date when the technology exists to bring them back to life. He was also a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of cryonics company Alcor. It is therefore entirely possible that Minsky’s brain is waiting, shock-frozen to be brought back to life at some time in the future as a backup on a computer. 

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