Marvin Minsky’s Marvelous Meat Machine
Steven Levy
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I enjoyed this reverential memorial, but it would be impossible to capture all the contradictory facets of Marvin’s world(s). My impressions are based on taking Society of the Mind 2x in 1991 and 1992, held one night a week in the Bartos auditorium.

I’d rank his arrogance as outstripping his truly Luciferian intellect. E.g., in my field, experimental psychology, he absolutely refused to familiarize himself with almost anything not written up by Piaget or his friend Herb Simon (which is everything post-1970s). Instead, Marvin would make naked claims that no one had even tried to understand X (emotions, motivation, goal-formulation).

His students were wildly brilliant (Sussman, Winograd + Hillis among the best; Lenat, Bobrow, and many others as middlers), but many fell into dead ends. Although every suicide is unique, the end of his last student’s life, Pushpinder Singh, could plausibly be linked to the field’s false promise. Marvin’s critique of neural nets (perceptrons) was also wrong-headed and sterile.

Another defining characteristic of his mind was its utterly stochastic trajectory. No one, and certainly not Marvin, could discipline his curiosity cum hubris. SoM class lectures rode roughshod over a thousand topics, and left many stacks unpopped. The book, which exemplifies a horde of daemons tackling random splinters of cognition, was rumored to have been assembled from shards collected together with Hillis’ help.

Finally, the sheer aggressiveness of his intellectual style created impressive fireworks. Yet, it caused many students to emulate his approach to thinking as a bloodsport. When I left Cambridge for Stanford, Terry Winograd was the first people outside of the psych dept I sought out. Terry’s gentle curiosity was further from Marvin’s style than California is from Cambridge. Instead of making everyone feel stupid, Terry made almost every interlocutor feel smarter (and this worked out pretty well for his grad student, Larry Page).

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