Marvin Minsky’s Marvelous Meat Machine

What made the father of artificial intelligence so unforgettable was his extraordinary real-life mind

Photograph by Amy Sussman via Getty Images

There was a great contradiction about Marvin Minsky. As one of the creators of artificial intelligence (with John McCarthy), he believed as early as the 1950s that computers would have human-like cognition. But Marvin himself was an example of an intelligence so bountiful, unpredictable and sublime that not even a million Singularities could conceivably produce a machine with a mind to match his. At the least, it is beyond my imagination to conceive of that happening.

But maybe Marvin could imagine it. His imagination respected no borders.

Minsky died Sunday night, at 88. His body had been slowing down, but that mind had kept churning. He was more than a pioneering computer scientist — he was a guiding light for what intellect itself could do. He was also our Yoda. The entire computer community, which includes all of us, of course, is going to miss him.

I first met him in 1982; I had written a story for Rolling Stone about young computer hackers, and it was optioned by Jane Fonda’s production company. I traveled to Boston with Fonda’s producer, Bruce Gilbert; and Susan Lyne, who had engineered my assignment to begin with. It was my first trip to MIT; my story been about Stanford hackers.

I was dazzled by Minsky, an impish man of clear importance whose every other utterance was a rabbit’s hole of profundity and puzzlement. He’d been a professor at MIT since 1958, had invented stuff like the head mounted display, and besides AI, had done pioneering work in neural nets and robotics. But even had he done nothing, the blinding brilliance of his conversation, leavened by the humor of a lighthearted borscht belt comic, would have cemented a legacy. He questioned everything, and his observations were quirky, innovative, and made such perfect sense that you wonder why no one else had thought of them. After a couple of hours with him, your own vision of the world was altered. Only years later did I realize that his everyday Minsky-ness imparted a basic lesson: if you saw the world the way everybody else did, how smart could you really be?

Patrick Henry Winston, whose own celebrated career in AI was inspired by a Minsky lecture at MIT, once put it this way: “Eventually, I have come to know a lot of geniuses, but Marvin is the only genius I know who is so smart it’s scary.”

That day, Minsky gave us a desultory tour of the AI Lab and we wound up at his house in Brookline. I have a fuzzy remembrance, but here’s a later description: “His living room is packed with interesting things, including two pianos, a harp, sculptures, paintings, old Macs, a SNARC neuron, a small rocket, mementos from many distinguished personalities/friends (such as Bono from U2, Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics, Gene Roddenberry and the cast from Star Trek, and so on), and plastic storage bins full of fun components, gadgets, and toys.” People floated in and out of the room, as we imbibed wine and engaged in mind-bending conversation. I can’t remember much of the conversation but I’m pretty sure it was my exposure to some of the futuristic speculations about computers that figure into my work to this day.

No movie was made. But a year later, I was working on a book about hackers. Only months into my research did I realize that all of hacker culture started at MIT, first at its Tech Model Railroad Club and later at Minsky’s Artificial Intelligence lab in the 1960s. Minsky, though quite adept as a computer scientist, was not a hacker himself. But he was their ringleader, and a key figure in the rise of hackers.

I arranged an interview. It was a trying experience. A few minutes into it, Minsky stood up and walked away. I was frozen with fear. Was the interview over? Should I follow him? I chose the latter course. For about an hour, I would run after him, ask him some questions, and he would respond, sometimes cryptically. Then, he’d dash off to another part of the lab. I’d rush behind him, lugging my tape recorder, feeling that I was one step away from being booted. I’m not sure whether it was a test I was failing, or just his way. Maybe both.

Here’s the way I described him in Hackers:

[Marvin Minsky] was a man with very big ideas about the future of computing — he really believed that one day machines would be able to think, and he would often create a big stir by publicly calling humans “meat machines,” implying machines not made of meat would do as well some day. An elfish man with twinkling eyes behind thick glasses, a starkly bald head, and an omnipresent turtleneck sweater, Minsky would say this in his usual dry style, geared simultaneously to maximize provocation and to leave just a hint that it was all some cosmic goof — of course machines can’t think, heh-heh. Marvin was the real thing; the PDP-1 hackers would often sit in his course, Intro to AI 6.544, because not only was Minsky a good theoretician, but he knew his stuff. By the early 1960’s Minsky was beginning to organize what would become the world’s first laboratory in artificial intelligence; and he knew that to do what he wanted, he would need programming geniuses as his foot soldiers — so he encouraged hackerism any way he could.

Minsky was a champion of the hackers. When other professors complained about their pranks and other various violations of the rules — including hectoring faculty members whose projects they did not respect — he would stand up for his charges. “I think [the hackers] helped progress by undermining professors with stupid plans,” he told me. While the hackers always called each other by last name, he was always “Marvin” to them.

Besides the core hackers, Minsky had a number of protégés, including the brilliant computer scientist Danny Hillis, who lived in Minsky’s basement for a while. (Another student: Ray Kurzweil.) As important as Minsky’s contributions were — not just in artificial intelligence, but human intelligence, too, with books like his groundbreaking Society of Mind — he will also be remembered for the many other intellects he lifted.

It is a shame that as years went on, Minsky was revered only by a cognoscenti (albeit a wide one). In today’s digital community, the most celebrated figures are the ones who make products and build mighty corporations. But building a business requires a laser focus and hardheadedness that Minsky never bothered with. His contribution came from the free-floating nature of his luminescent intellect. And he was never less than generous with his ideas.

A 2002 gathering at John Brockman’s Eastover Farm. Left to right: Ray Kurzweil, Paul Steinhardt, Seth Lloyd, the author, Alan Guth and Minsky.

I would run into him here and there over the decades. Sometimes, we’d run into each other and talk; other times I’d hear him speak. In 2002, at a summer gathering at the Connecticut farm of Edge.org’s founder John Brockman, a few top scientists were asked to comment on “their universes.” Minsky’s rambling rejoinder was classic:

“To say that the universe exists is silly, because it’s saying that the universe is one of the things in the universe. . . So we have to conclude that it doesn’t make sense to ask about why this world exists. However, there still remain other good questions to ask, about how this particular universe works.”

A few years later, I witnessed a spirited exchange between him and Larry Page at a SciFoo conference, with Marvin defending his version of AI. Of course, he needed no defense, despite criticism that his earlier predictions were overly optimistic. What’s a few extra years? Minsky was outlining the power of neural nets — the current rage in AI — before the scientists leading the charge were born. Before some of their parents were born.

In recent years, whenever Minsky spoke, he would take on a topic and put an astonishing spin to it, whether it was a theory of why people loved music so much, a stab at determining what made things funny, or a challenging theory of the nature of health. To the last, he was opening minds with his unparalleled meat machine.

And now he’s walked away again. See you later, Marvin.