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Marvin Minsky
MIT Professor Emeritus Marvin Minsky has died at the age of 88. (Credit: Louis Fabian Bachrach via MIT)

Marvin Minsky, the computer scientist who helped blaze the trail for virtual smartphone assistants and other manifestations of artificial intelligence, died of a cerebral hemorrhage on Sunday at the age of 88.

Word of Minsky’s passing came today from his family as well as from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Minsky worked on the foundations of AI since the 1950s.

As the co-founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, now known as the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Minsky contributed to the decades-long drive to make machines more humanlike – through the development of robotic hands and neural networks, as well through his musings on the philosophical underpinnings of intelligence.

His seminal book on the subject was “The Society of Mind,” published in 1985, which reflected on how human intelligence emerged from the interaction of various cognitive mechanisms. He argued that such an approach could give rise to a kind of machine intelligence as well. Minsky returned to the theme in his last book, “The Emotion Machine,” published in 2006.

“Marvin Minsky was an intellectual giant, a founder of our field, and also someone who personally welcomed and mentored many of us to the field, to his ideas, and even to his home,” Oren Etzioni, CEO of Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, told GeekWire in an email. “My favorite line of his is, ‘In general we are least aware of what our minds do best.'”

Minsky’s ideas also had an influence on education – manifested by the spread of computers in the classroom and the use of programming languages as teaching tools, as well as the shift from rote memorization to critical thinking and the concept of “learning to learn.”

“Our children today are growing up in increasingly complex and dangerous worlds – while our institutions are failing to teach correspondingly better ways to think,” Minsky complained in one of his many essays on education.

Minsky was born in New York, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and won degrees in mathematics from Harvard and Princeton. He joined MIT’s faculty in 1958, co-founded the AI Lab with fellow pioneer John McCarthy in 1959 and became a founding member of the MIT Media Lab in 1985.

He is survived by his wife, Gloria Rudisch Minsky, and three children: Henry, Julie and Margaret Minsky.

Ed Lazowska, a computer science professor at the University of Washington, told GeekWire that Julie Minsky was a staff member at UW’s computer science and engineering department some years ago. That gave Lazowska and his UW colleagues an additional perspective on Marvin Minsky’s life and legacy.

“We were privileged to see him as a father as well as a towering scientist,” Lazowska said in an email.

The family requests that memorial contributions be directed to the Marvin Minsky Foundation. MIT said a celebration of Minsky’s life would be held at the MIT Media Lab later this year.

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