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Marvin Minsky honored for lifetime achievements in artificial intelligence

The MIT professor emeritus earns the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award for his pioneering work and mentoring role in the field of artificial intelligence.
Marvin Minsky
Marvin Minsky
photo: wikipedia

MIT Media Lab professor emeritus Marvin Minsky, 86, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, has won the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the information and communications technologies category.

The BBVA Foundation cited his influential role in defining the field of artificial intelligence, and in mentoring many of the leading minds in today’s artificial intelligence community. The award also recognizes his contributions to the fields of mathematics, cognitive science, robotics, and philosophy.

In learning of the award, which brings a prize of  $540,000, Minsky reconfirmed his conviction that one day we will develop machines that will be as smart as humans. But he added “how long this takes will depend on how many people we have working on the right problems. Right now there is a shortage of both researchers and funding.”

Minsky joined the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science faculty in 1958, and co-founded the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (now the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) the following year. In 1985, he became a founding member of the Media Lab, where he was named the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and where he continues to teach and mentor.

Commenting on the award, Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Media Lab, says, “Marvin’s genius is accompanied by extreme kindness and humor. He listens well, and is oracle-like in his capability to debug an enormously complex situation with a simple, short phrase. Through the 47 years we have known each other, he has taught me to tackle the big problems.”

Patrick Winston, the Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science and former director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, says, “One day, when I was wondering what I wanted to do, I went to one of Marvin's lectures, invited by a friend. At the end, I said to myself, I want to do what he does. And ever since, that is what I have done.”

Minsky views the brain as a machine whose functioning can be studied and replicated in a computer, which would teach us, in turn, to better understand the human brain and higher-level mental functions. He has been recognized for his work focusing on how we might endow machines with common sense — the knowledge humans acquire every day through experience. How, for example, do we teach a sophisticated computer that to drag an object on a string, you need to pull not push — a concept easily mastered by a two-year-old child.

Minsky’s book, “The Society of Mind” (1985) is considered the seminal work on exploring intellectual structure and function, and for understanding the diversity of the mechanisms interacting in intelligence and thought. Other achievements include building the first neural network simulator (SNARC), as well as mechanical hands and other robotic devices. Minsky is the inventor of the earliest confocal scanning microscope. He was also involved in the inventions of the first "turtle," or cursor, for the LOGO programming language (with Seymour Papert), and the "Muse" synthesizer for musical variations (with Ed Fredkin). His most recent book, “The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind,” was published in 2006.

Minsky has received numerous awards, among them the ACM Turing Award, the Japan Prize, the Royal Society of Medicine Rank Prize (for Optoelectronics) and the Optical Society (OSA) R.W. Wood Prize.

Minsky graduated from Harvard University in 1950, and received his PhD from Princeton University in 1954. He was appointed a Harvard University Junior Fellow from 1954 to 1957.

The BBVA Foundation was established by the BBVA Group, a global financial service group based in Spain. The Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, established in 2008, honor achievements in the arts, science, and technology. They focus on contributions of lasting impact for their originality, theoretical significance and ability to push back the frontiers of the known world.

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