Minsky, early explorer of AI future, dies at 88

MIT professor Marvin Minsky set artificial intelligence on its current, unfolding course. Also in Searchlight: EMC head says Dell deal is on track despite jitters; top Twitter execs take flight.

This week, MIT and countless students and protégés in the fields of computer science, cognition and robotics said farewell to Marvin Minsky. But they also gained the opportunity to look back at the immeasurable contributions of the renowned researcher and educator.

Minsky helped lay the foundation for artificial intelligence when computing itself was in its infancy -- work that helped shape the business and social networks we use today. Business and IT leaders, too, whether they know it or not, are part of his legacy.

Minsky, a longtime MIT professor who co-founded what is now the school's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, died Sunday in Boston of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 88.

"He changed the way we think about thinking," said Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management who studies the impact of IT on business strategy and productivity.

The mind, his business

Minsky's 1986 book, The Society of Mind -- "a big influence on me," Brynjolfsson said -- posited that the human brain isn't a sole conductor of thought and body mechanics but is made up of primitive "agents," each performing a simple task, such as detecting an edge in the physical world or noticing heat. When combined, their tasks are more complex, like knowing the body is hungry and recognizing the types of food that will nourish and satisfy, Brynjolfsson said.

Marvin Minsky, a professor at MIT and pioneer in artificial intelligence, died Jan. 24.Marvin Minsky

"It's like a society of these very simple, primitive agents that, when they work together, create the emergent behavior we call intelligence," he said.

Brynjolfsson has applied Minsky's analogy to his own research into how modern businesses are modeled: No one person makes decisions for an organization; it takes lots of people doing different tasks to create what he calls an "information-processing entity."

It's an equation IT execs can take to work: The right people for the right task equals better information.

"The role of the CIO is, of course, to structure that flow of information," Brynjolfsson said. "If the CIO does it well, the organization will be more intelligent than the sum of its parts."

Minsky believed there was no genuine difference between humans and machines: Humans were machines of a sort, so why not try to give machines human-like reasoning skills? He manually wired together the first artificial neural network, or "neural net," in 1951 -- and built early visual scanners and mechanical hands that could detect objects.

Forging an AI future

"Marvin had great patience with students, but no patience with those who doubted that computers would ever be intelligent at a human level or beyond," wrote MIT professor Patrick Henry Winston, who studied with Minsky, on his webpage.

There have been a number of "AI winters," when funding and interest in artificial intelligence withered, but not so now. Almost daily, Minsky's groundwork in AI is showing signs of advancement, whether in demonstrations like Google's DeepMind beating a human champion of the ancient board game Go -- more difficult a challenge than chess or TV's Jeopardy, at which machines have already bested people -- a phone store staffed by robots in Japan; or a "moonshot," like the $28 million U.S. government grant to Harvard University to study ways to match human intelligence.

Today, AI is gradually making its way into organizations, helping physicians perform more effectively and efficiently at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, to cite one example, or set to work alongside humans in business processes.

Daunting or intriguing for CIOs -- who have a lot of preparing to do -- an AI future is fast approaching, said Brynjolfsson, who co-wrote the 2014 book The Second Machine Age with fellow MIT academic Andrew McAfee. And that timeline wouldn't be the same without Minsky.

"It's hard to think of a bigger contribution than that," Brynjolfsson said.

CIO news roundup for the week of Jan. 25

Here's what else grabbed headlines this week:

  • Dell's pending $67 billion buyout of EMC is on track, EMC chief exec Joe Tucci told investors Wednesday, despite lots of jitters in the market. Part of the deal -- the biggest in tech history -- calls for computer-maker Dell to borrow $50 billion to buy storage vendor EMC. Stock prices of both Dell and EMC have dipped since the deal's October announcement, as did the stock price of EMC subsidiary VMware. The virtualization software company said Wednesday it would slash 800 jobs amid slow growth.
  • A bevy of top-ranking Twitter folks -- chiefs of products, engineering and media, and the human resources VP -- are on the way out, an exodus the social media company confirmed Sunday and called voluntary. The general manager of Twitter's video app, Vine, is also leaving. As stocks hover near an all-time low and new-user growth has stalled, CEO Jack Dorsey's challenge now is to find replacements. The company can count at least one addition this week: American Express exec Leslie Berland as its first chief marketing officer.
  • Global sales of public cloud services will hit $204 billion by the end of 2016, according to Gartner. The market research outfit predicted that demand for cloud infrastructure services, or infrastructure as a service, will drive it all, growing by 38% to $22 billion. It's not looking too shabby for software as a service, either. Sales for the prepackaged cloud applications are projected to grow by 20% to $38 billion.
  • A 300-foot yacht belonging Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen allegedly crashed into a coral reef in the Cayman Islands two weeks ago, the islands' Department of Environment said, damaging about a quarter of an acre of protected underwater terrain. The maximum fine for the damage is about $600 billion, said the department's deputy director, Scott Slaybaugh. Allen, whose charitable foundation is leading several ocean conservation projects, is cooperating with authorities.

Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on the bright spot amid stagnant global IT spending and the FTC's findings on the unethical use of big data.

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