Marvin Minsky ’45, Pioneer In Artificial Intelligence, Passes Away at 88

Marvin Minsky ’45, Ph.D., a preeminent scientist in the field of artificial intelligence, robotics, cognitive psychology and mathematics, passed away at the age of 88 on January 24 in Boston. The cause of death was cerebral hemorrhage. In November, Minsky was awarded the Andover Alumni Award of Distinction, and spoke at an All-School Meeting (ASM).

Minsky, whose work has contributed to the creation of the personal computer and the Internet, laid the foundation for the study of artificial intelligence. Seeing no great difference between the thinking processes of humans and those of machines, Minsky worked to characterize human psychological processes into computational ideas that would give computers intelligence, according to an article in “The New York Times.”

Minsky came to Andover his Senior year and upon graduation, he served in the U.S. Navy for a few months before returning to study at Harvard College. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics from Harvard and his doctorate from Princeton University. Minsky later continued his journey in education as a professor at Massachusetts Institution of Technology (MIT).

“He was a great guy in his work. I knew him as a classmate. Me and a lot of my friends had a lot of things that we did at school that wasn’t anything in his league, we were mostly involved in sports. I did grow up with him and everyone respected him because he was fearsome and he was a hard worker,” said Artie Moher ’45, Minsky’s Andover classmate, in a phone interview with The Phillipian.

Minsky built the first neural network simulator, the Stochastic Neural-Analog Reinforcement Computer, in 1951. Just five years later, he created the first ever Confocal Scanning Microscope, an optical instrument known for its advanced image quality and resolution. In 1959, Minsky co-founded the MIT Artificial Intelligence Project, later called the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, with Professor John McCarthy.

His contributions to the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, mathematics and cognitive psychology earned him a number of prestigious distinctions, among them the ACM Turing Award, IJCAI Award for Research Excellence, Japan Prize, Benjamin Franklin Medal and the Andover Alumni Award of Distinction.

Introducing Minsky at the Andover Alumni Award of Distinction ceremony during ASM on November 4, Camille Little ’16 said, “Although he’s won countless awards, last night during the distinguished alumni dinner, when given the opportunity to talk about his achievements, he spent most of the night answering the audience’s questions. Above all, Dr. Minsky values teaching and sharing his knowledge. Perhaps his most important advice last night was to remind us the significance of curiosity in remaining a lifelong learner.”

That day was Minsky’s final and most recent visit to Andover.

“Somehow in my career I was dropped into the right place at the right time. I was at Andover. I’d always been grateful to have experienced inspiration from teachers and facilities,” said Minsky during the November ASM.

John Thorndike ’45, a fellow classmate, returned to hear Minsky receive the award despite never having had much contact with his peer during their time at Andover.

“Well you know what his first sentence was [at the ASM]? It was something to the effect of: ‘There’s a lot of luck involved in life.’ And I was very surprised that a mathematical scientist, something that I am not, would make such a statement because certainly in my life, luck has been a big factor but I wouldn’t [have] thought it would’ve much in his life. That amazed me,” said Thorndike.

Marvin Lee Minsky was born on August 9, 1927, to Dr. Henry Minsky and Fannie Reiser in New York City. He is survived by his wife, his two daughters, his son, his sister and his four grandchildren.