Marvin Minsky: Farewell from Stephen Wolfram

Source: Stephen Wolfram blog, Jan 2016

The Marvin that I knew was a wonderful mixture of serious and quirky. About almost any subject he’d have something to say, most often quite unusual. Sometimes it’d be really interesting; sometimes it’d just be unusual. I’m reminded of a time in the early 1980s when I was visiting Boston and subletting an apartment from Marvin’s daughter Margaret (who was in Japan at the time). Margaret had a large and elaborate collection of plants, and one day I noticed that some of them had developed nasty-looking spots on their leaves.

Being no expert on such things (and without the web to look anything up!), I called Marvin to ask what to do. What ensued was a long discussion about the possibility of developing microrobots that could chase mealybugs away. Fascinating though it was, at the end of it I still had to ask, “But what should I actually do about Margaret’s plants?” Marvin replied, “Oh, I guess you’d better talk to my wife.”

For many decades, Marvin was perhaps the world’s greatest energy source for artificial intelligence research. He was a fount of ideas, which he fed to his long sequence of students at MIT. And though the details changed, he always kept true to his goal of figuring out how thinking works, and how to make machines do it.

Once someone told me that Marvin could give a talk about almost anything, but if one wanted it to be good, one should ask him an interesting question just before he started, and then that’d be what he would talk about. I realized this was how to handle conversations with Marvin too: bring up a topic and then he could be counted on to say something unusal and often interesting about it.

…  always a certain warmth to Marvin. He liked and supported people; he connected with all sorts of interesting people; he enjoyed telling nice stories about people. His house always seemed to buzz with activity, even as, over the years, it piled up with stuff to the point where the only free space was a tiny part of a kitchen table.

Marvin also had a great love of ideas. Ones that seemed important. Ones that were strange and unusual. But I think in the end Marvin’s greatest pleasure was in connecting ideas with people. He was a hacker of ideas, but I think the ideas became meaningful to him when he used them as a way to connect with people.


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