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Minsky

Very sad to hear that Marvin Minsky has passed. Here are some notes I took at a talk of his in 2007. See also: Philip Greenspun’s remembrence of Minsky.

3 replies on “Minsky”

Wow, sad to hear the news. Marvin Minsky and I were academic peers of a sort — he was one of George A. Miller’s first students, and I was one of George’s last students. 🙂 George told my parents something like I was the student who most reminded him of Marvin Minsky, except whereas he spent George’s Air Force money, I spent my father’s money. 🙂 Which was not quite true (I paid for a chunk of Princeton with the proceeds of a video game I wrote and with some loans) but it sounded funny. 🙂 My dad was actually mostly a blue collar worker, and my mother only later in life worked for county social services, so George may also not have realized my family was not that well off financially.

I met Marvin Minsky once in his MIT office in 1985 as I was graduating from Princeton. I likely gave him a copy of my thesis — “Why Intelligence: Object, Evolution, Stability, and Model”. I also wrote to him once in the 1990s about getting computer time for space habitat simulations (he was responsive in a positive way, but then I met my wife and so just let stuff like that drop). And I saw him in passing about fifteen years ago when he gave a talk at IBM Research while I was a contractor there (he spoke about multiple simultaneous mental representations, and picking from the best one). A nephew of his even lived down the hall from me my senior year at Princeton in 1903 hall, too, but I never talked with him about his uncle. But we never really connected any of those times, sadly.

One of the biggest mistake I’ve made in my life careerwise (or so it seemed at the time) was when visiting Marvin Minsky in his office to talk to him about the triplestore and semantic network ideas in my thesis (stuff that indirectly helped inspire WordNet which George started as I graduated). I casually mentioned in passing to Marvin Minsky very early on in our meeting something about neural networks (MIT had a spinoff then of the Connection Machine), and I guess that may have put him in one of those mental states where some of the 400 different little computers activate. 🙂 I had not known then that he had essentially written a book (Perceptrons) to discredit neural networks (by only considering a limited version of them) to preserve funding for more formal semantic networks he worked on. He warned me sternly about how many careers had been destroyed by exploring neural networks. Another of George’s students had found a copy of Marvin’s original SNARC paper (what Marvin spent George’s Air Force grant money on), and I can wish I had thought to take a copy to Marvin, as that might have set a different tone for our meeting, as it turned out Marvin had lost his original and wanted to reference it in his book “the Society of Mind” he was working on then.

So, instead of MIT, I spent a year hanging out in Hans Moravec’s and also Red Whittaker’s robot labs, and that was interesting in its own way. That experience also set me to thinking about the implications of most of the CMU robotics work being funded by the US military, which ultimately lead to my key insight about the irony of using robots to fight about material scarcity they could otherwise alleviate.

I sent Marvin Minsky an email in 2010, with a subject of “Vitamin D, computing, and abundance”, warning about the health risks of vitamin D deficiency for heavy computer users. I also thanked him for his interactions with James P. Hogan, an author whose writings have been very inspiring to me (like Two Faces of Tomorrow and Voyage From Yesteryear), as James acknowledges Marvin in the first as a major source of ideas and inspirations, so some big ideas went from Marvin to James to me at least in that sense. 🙂 I also thanked him for being such an inspiration in years gone by. I had been reading through all the comments at a Wired article on “DARPA: U.S. Geek Shortage Is National Security Risk” and reflecting on my own career and inspirations, and thought I’d write to him. I told Marvin the biggest thing missed in that article is just that most computer jobs in the USA are not given much room for creative expression these days. And, sadly, much the same is true for academia for reason Dr. Goodstein outlines in his “The Big Crunch” essay (as do many other authors) which I also linked to. When you think about it, even as billions of dollars are being poured into proprietary software every year, and maybe a similar amount into academia, most programmers are kept on very short leashes focused on narrow project outcomes. There are very few projects like Mozilla or Chandler with a broad mandate (and when there are, they are often badly managed). When you think about it, for example, where is the broad support for creating better GUI libraries? Sure you can point to Angular or React as spinoffs of big corporations and they are getting most of the mindshare, but the very limited support for truly creative people like Leo Horie who made Mithril on the side in their spare time is more typical. Likewise, Notch and Minecraft got all the publicity and billions but Infiniminer and Zachary Barth, the source of key Minecraft ideas, get very little returns or support. Even Bill Gate learned by dumpster diving and reading the TOPS-20 OS listings and his MS-DOS was purchased as a ripoff of Kildall’s CPM, which IBM may have known about and used Gates to stay at arms length from a suspicious transaction. Sigh.

I have since some to think that, short of improved subsistence via 3D printing and flexible home and agricultural personal robotics, or a radical change to a gift economy, or broad government grants totaling in the hundreds of billions of years to any programmer who asked, about the only thing I can think of that would really fix that situation of limited time for programmers to be creative, that would really give most programmers some financial freedom to innovate, not just a few (like Marvin) who manage (often by technical brilliance of a sort, and so seemingly “deservedly”) to work their way up the social/funding hierarchy, would be a “basic income” for everyone. Then any programmer who wanted to could live life a graduate student their entire life (but without grad school restrictions like pleasing an adviser) and turn out free/libre and open source software. And others might choose to do other things with that freedom (have kids, teach, write books, paint, whatever). Most such creative programming projects would fail of course, but we might still see a lot of great innovative socially-useful stuff, where programmers would have the time to really support it.

I included in that email links to my Post-Scarcity Princeton writings. That email to Marvin Minsky was also when I first created my email sig, to, as I said to him, sum up the most important thing I’ve learned over the past 25 years by following the road less traveled (via CMU). 🙂 The version then was: “The biggest challenge of the 21st century is technologies of abundance in the hands of those thinking in terms of scarcity.” I changed “thinking” to “still thinking” later to be a bit more optimistic. 🙂

It is a sad day for us and his family, but Marvin apparently had one of the most fun careers of anyone I can imagine, so I can’t feel too sad for Marvin himself. I am sad though that I said the wrong thing incidentally in his office and so never got to be part of that fun. But a deep question to ask is, how can more people have a fun and creative life like Marvin Minsky had?

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