5 predictions from Marvin Minsky as ‘father of AI’ dies aged 88

26 Jan 2016

Yesterday was a sad day for those whose life’s work is in the development of AI technology as Marvin Minsky, often considered the ‘father of AI’, died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 88.

In his decades of computer science research, machine learning and futurist musings on the future of AI technology, Marvin Minsky became something of a legend for his ideas, which in many ways laid the basis for what we think of as AI today.

Building his first neural network simulator in 1951, Minsky flourished after he joined MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1958 and, just a year later, he co-founded its Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, as it is now called.

With Minsky leading the charge, the lab went on to develop pioneering research in AI and robotics, most notably, the development of early robotic hands capable of manipulating objects and a range of programming frameworks that were the forbearers of what we have today.

With his work being so heavily involved in the process of developing intelligence that could compete with human intelligence, Minsky’s work often saw him talk quite philosophically on questions such as, what makes something intelligent?

In a 1985 essay, he once mused that: “Speed is what distinguishes intelligence. No bird discovers how to fly: evolution used a trillion bird years to ‘discover’ that – where merely hundreds of person-years sufficed.”

However, it has to be said, that while his legacy contributed to everything from the very basics of AI, robotics and even the early stages of the internet when it was known as the ARPAnet, not everything he said was exactly right.

Here are five of his most famous predications; some of which were on the money and some of which were not.

Robots will keep us as pets

Probably one of his most famous quotes comes from questions over the doomsday scenario that is regularly brought up by critics of the stampeding progress of AI, that being, the possibility that robots could outpace humanity.

Minsky laid out his thoughts on the matter in a 1994 paper entitled Will Robots Inherit the Earth?, in which he explains how the limitations of the human body and ability to expand our intelligence at a rate fast enough will see us create artificial brains and bodies to the point that we won’t be human anymore.

Summing this up in a quote, Minsky said in the paper: “Will robots inherit the earth? Yes, but they will be our children.”

Although this would somewhat contradict a quote attributed to him in Life magazine from 1970 in which he said: “Once the computers get control, we might never get it back. We would survive at their sufferance. If we’re lucky, they might decide to keep us as pets.”

If aliens are out there, we’ll be able to communicate with them

Once again looking at the intelligence of a species, Minsky contributed to a collection of essays from established scientists which posed the question of the possibility of extraterrestrial life in the universe and what would happen if we ever met it?

In Minsky’s case, he discussed the possibility of whether we could communicate with ‘aliens’ or not.

In his view, if we are to ever make contact, we will be able to communicate with them because we would share similar constraints, such as any species’ need to create symbols to represent ideas, like economics, to other beings on their planet.

However, this would only apply to physical beings, like us, that still rely on survival and communication in the same way we do.

Minsky was instrumental in the decision to send mathematical algorithms into outer space, based off this theory.

Coding will become irrelevant

Back in 1983, when coding was considered a pursuit best left to the socially reclusive and hyper-intelligent, Minsky already envisioned a future where coding would become completely irrelevant and that programming as a career would cease to be.

Quoting from a book entitled Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing, Minsky said: “Surely the days of programming, as we know it, are numbered … Instead, we’ll express our intention about what should be done … Then these expressions will be submitted to immense, intelligent, intention-understanding programs, which will themselves construct the actual, new programs.”

While programmers are still very much in demand in 2016, and it has become increasingly more common among younger generations to be knowledgeable of the various languages, there’s something to be said for the various ‘click-and-drop’ programs out there for creating codeless projects. Who knows, maybe one day he’ll be right?

Neuroscience was on to nothing

Okay, so maybe he wasn’t right all the time. As recently as 2007, Minsky was interviewed about the potential for neuroscience, something which it becomes clear he was not a fan of.

“When you talk to neuroscientists, they seem so unsophisticated; they major in biology and know about potassium and calcium channels, but they don’t have sophisticated psychological ideas,” Minsky said in the interview. “Neuroscientists should be asking: What phenomenon should I try to explain? Can I make a theory of it? Then, can I design an experiment to see if one of those theories is better than the others? If you don’t have two theories, then you can’t do an experiment. And they usually don’t even have one.”

He went on to say that AI and mathematics were the obvious ways in which to solve the answers of the human mind.

“[You can answer questions] through the lens of building a simulation,” he said. “If a theory is very simple, you can use mathematics to predict what it’ll do. If it’s very complicated, you have to do a simulation. It seems to me that for anything as complicated as the mind or brain, the only way to test a theory is to simulate it and see what it does.”

Right, so.

AI will be solved before 1980

Speaking in 1967: “Within a generation … the problem of creating artificial intelligence will substantially be solved.” Oh.

Marvin Minsky image via Ben Grey/Flickr

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic