The mind, artificial intelligence and emotions

Interview with Marvin Minsky


Conducted by Renato M.E. Sabbatini, PhD,
Associate Editor, Brain & Mind Magazine


Marvin Minsky is respected as one of foremost researchers and writers in many fields of the Computer Sciences, particularly in Artificial Intelligence, the area which studies ways of imitating the human brainís cognitive functions in a computer. As a professor with the prestigious Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in Cambridge, USA, he founded the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, a place where many of the ground-breaking research projects in computer sciences have occurred and still occur, such as the development of programming languages LISP and LOGO. Heís is one of the founders of robotics and is the recipient of a number of awards and honors, such as the Turing Award, which is considered the Nobel of computing. He also participates in the renowned MIT Media Lab, where the media of the future are being researched.

 Due to the many points of contact and interaction between the neurosciences, psychology and computer sciences in the area of Artificial Intelligence, itís no wonder that the genial mind of Prof. Minsky soon turned to the commonalities and interfaces between both and started to write about the brain and its product, the mind. His "opus magnum" in this area has been a fascinating book, "TheSociety of Mind", which has been translated to many languages,including Portuguese, and which has a number of interesting theories about the organization and workings of the mind. His interest in the area is a long standing one: the first electrical realization of a artificial neural network was made by Minsky while a student. He has even written anovel about building a super-intelligence in 2023 A.D, titled  "The Turing Option", in 1991.

 Prof. Minsky visited São Paulo for his fourth time last May 1998, as invited speaker to Inetí98, a conference on intelligent technologies and networking. During three grueling days, we had the opportunity, as the president of the scientific committee of the conference, to accompany the indefatigable professor (despite his age) in an unending round of press interviews and conferences; as well as to ask many questions of ours. He tremendously impressed us with his intelligence, depth of thinking and originality of ideas, and with his personality. The result is a patchwork of a interview, patched from severalquestions in different settings and times, which we present here for the delight of the reader, who will undoubtedly be mesmerized by the brilliant mind of Marvin Minsky and his many original (and some say, outrageous) ideas and catch phrases.

The Interview

Sabbatini: Prof. Minsky, in your view, what is the contribution that computer sciences can make to the study of thebrain and the mind ?

 Minsky: Well, it is clear to me that computer sciences will change our lives, but not because itís about computers. Itís because it will help us to understand our own brains, to learn what is the nature of knowledge. It will teach us how we learn to think and feel. This knowledge will change our views of Humanity and enable us to change ourselves.

 Computer sciences are about managing complicated processes and the most complicated thing around are us.

 Sabbatini: Why computers are so stupid?

  Minsky: A vast amount of information lies within our reach. But no present-day machine yet knows enough to answer the simplest questions about daily life, such as:

 No computer knows such things, but every normal child does.

 There are many other examples. Robots make cars in factories, but no robot can make a bed, or clean your house or baby-sit. Robots can solve differential equations, but no robot can understand a first grade childís story. Robots can beat people at chess, but no robot can fill your glass.

 We need common-sense knowledge Ė and programs that can use it.Common sense computing needs several ways of representing knowledge. It is harder to make a computer housekeeper than a computer chess-player, because the housekeeper must deal with a wider range of situations.

Sabbatini: How large such a knowledge base would be?

 Minsky: I think it would fit all in one CD-ROM. Of course, there is no psychological experiment ever done to see if a person knows more than a CDís content (650 MB). It is fairly impossible to estimate how many megabytes of information a person knows, but I think that is not more than this. If you memorize 10 books, it would take no more than 1 megabyte of memory, but very few persons know even a small book by heart.

 Hardware is not the limiting factor for building an intelligent computer. We donít need supercomputers to do this; the problem is that we donít know whatís the software to use with them. A 1 MHz computer probably is faster than the brain and would do the job provided that it has the right software.

 Sabbatini: Why there are no computers already working with common sense knowledge ?

 Minsky: There are very few people working with common sense problems in Artificial Intelligence. I know of no more than five people, so probably there are about ten of them out there. Who are these people ? Thereís John McCarthy, at Stanford University, who was the first to formalize common sense using logics. He has a very interesting web page. Then, there is Harry Sloaman, from the University of Edinburgh, whoís probably the best philosopher in the world working on Artificial Intelligence, with the exception of Daniel Dennett, but he knows more about computers. Then thereís me, of course. Another person working on a strong common-sense project is Douglas Lenat, who directs the CYC project in Austin. Finally, Douglas Hofstadter, who wrote many books about the mind, artificial intelligence, etc., is working on similar problems.

We talk only to each other and no one else is interested. There is something wrong with computer sciences.

Sabbatini: Is there any AI software that uses the common sense approach ?

 Minsky: As I said, the best system based on common sense is CYC, developed by Doug Lenat, a brilliant guy, but he set up a company, CYCorp, and is developing it as a proprietary system. Many computer scientists have a good idea and then made it a secret and start making proprietary systems. They should distribute copies of their system to graduate systems, so that they could evolve and get new ideas. We must understand how they work.

 I donít believe in intellectual property. The world has gone crazy. People are patenting genes. Why? They didnít invent them!

 Sabbatini: Are automatic language translation programs and chess-playing programs good examples of truly intelligent software ?

 Minsky: Of course not. Current machine translation technology still falls short of a reasonably good human translator, because it doesnít really understands what it is translating. Again, it would need common sense knowledge, besides having knowledge about the vocabulary, syntax, etc. of the source and target languages. Prof Noam Chomsky is to be faulted why we donít have good machine translation programs. He is so brilliant and his theory of generational grammar is so good, that for 40 years it has been used by everyone in the field, shifting the focus from semantics to syntax.

In the beginning of the AI field, teaching a computer how to play complex games was a big thing. Arthur Samuel wrote a checkers-player program in1957. He will be remembered as the pioneer of computer gaming. We have learnt nothing in 40 years, I think, about making chess playing programs:IBM's Deep Blue plays chess (which has beated Gerry Kasparov, the world chess champion) only more rapidly, but not in a different way from the first chess-playing programs. These programs play well and can even beat the current world chess champion but they do not play in the same mannera s the human brain plays.

 Sabbatini: How your concept of the "society of mind" relate to common-sense knowledge ?

 Minksy: Take the human vision system, for example. There is no computer today that can look around a room and make a map of what it seems, a feat that even a four-year old is able to do. We have programs that can recognize faces, that can do somef ocal vision processing and recognition, but not this higher-order processing. Thus, human distance perception is a great example of a "society of mind". There is a suite of cooperating methods, such as gradients, border detection, haze, occlusion, shadow, focus, brightness, motion, disparity, perspective, convergence, shading knowledge, etc.

 A computer program typically has one or two ways of doing something, a human brain has dozen of different methods to use.

  Sabbatini: You seem to believe that we will be able to build truly intelligence in the future. But humans have consciousness, awareness of themselves. Will computers ever be able to have this ?

 Minsky: Itís very easy to make computers aware of themselves. For example, all computers have a stack; a special area of memory where the computer can look to see itís past actions. It is a trivial problem and not a very important one. The real problem is to know how the mind knows about itself. We donít understand how this happens. Persons have a very shallow awareness about themselves. This is no mysterious thing.

 As soon as computers gets a minimum of common sense we will know.

 Sabbatini: When will this happen?

 Minsky: Never, at the present rate. The public doesnít value basic research enough to let this situation be fixed. I suggest that you get a Brazilian center to work on common sense problems for the next 10 years!.

 Sabbatini: Your upcoming book will be about the role of emotions. Could you tell us a little about this ?

 Minsky: Emotion is only adifferent way to think. It may use some of the body functions, such aswhen we prepare to fight (the heart beats faster, etc.). Emotions havea survival value, so that we are able to behave efficiently in some situations.Animals have better, stronger and faster emotions than us.

 Therefore, truly intelligent computers will need to have emotions.This is not impossible or even difficult to achieve. Once we understand the relationship between thinking, emotion and memory, it will be easy to implement these functions into the software.

Freud was one of the first computer scientists, because he studied the importance of memory. He was also a pioneer in proposing the role of emotions in personality and behavior. It is a pity because everyone listened only to his ideas on sex. Freud is more about complicated processes.

According to Freud, the mind is organized as a sandwich. It is made of three layers: the superego, which provides us with attachment, self-image, etc., and that learns social values and ideas, prohibitionsa nd taboos, acquired mainly from our parents. Under it thereís the ego, which mediates conflict resolution and connects to sensory input and motor expression. Under the ego, we find the id, which is responsible for thei nnate drives system, our basic urges, such as hunger, thirst, sex, etc.

 This could be a model for a computer program having personality, knowledge and emotion, social perception, moral constraints, etc.

Who Is Marvin Minsky

Marvin Lee Minsky is Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research has led to both theoretical and practical advances in artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, neural networks, and the theory of Turing Machines and recursive functions. He has made major contributions in the domains of symbolic graphical description, computational geometry, knowledge representation, computational semantics, machine perception, symbolic and connectionist learning. He has also been involved with many studies of advanced technologies for space exploration.

Professor Minsky was also one of the pioneers of intelligence-based mechanical robotics and telepresence. He designed and built some of the first mechanical hands with tactile sensors, visual scanners, and their software and computer interfaces. He also influenced many robotic projects outside of MIT, and designed and built the first LOGO "turtle." In 1951 he built the first randomly wired neural network learning machine (called SNARC, for Stochastic Neural-Analog Reinforcement Computer), based on the reinforcement of simulated synaptic transmission coefficients. When a Junior Fellow at Harvard, he invented and built the first Confocal Scanning Microscope, an optical instrument with unprecedented resolution and image quality.

Since the early 1950s, Marvin Minsky has worked on using computational ideas to characterize human psychological processes, as well as working to endow machines with intelligence. In 1959, Minsky and John McCarthyf ounded what became the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and hisl ong tenure as its co-director placed his imprint upon the entire field of Artificial Intelligence. His seminal 1961 paper, "Steps Towards Artificial Intelligence" surveyed and analyzed all of what had been done before, and set forth the major problems of that infant discipline.The 1963 paper, "Matter, Mind, and Models" addressed the problem of making self-aware machines; in "Perceptrons," 1969, he and Seymour Papert characterized the capabilities and limitations of loop-free learning and pattern recognition machines. In "A Framework for Representing Knowledge" (1974) he put forth a model of knowledge representation to account for many phenomena in cognition, language understanding, and visual perception. These representations, called "frames," inherited their variable assignments from previously defined frames, and are often considered to be an early form of object-oriented programming.

In the early 1970s, Minsky and Papert began formulating a theory called "The Society of Mind" which combined insights from developmental child psychology and their experience with research on Artificial Intelligence. The Society of Mind proposes that intelligence is not the product of any singular mechanism, but comes from the managed interaction of a diverse variety of resourceful agents. They argued that such diversity is necessary because different tasks require fundamentally different mechanisms; this transforms psychology from a fruitless quest for a few "basic" principles into a search for mechanisms that a mind could use to manage the interaction of many diverse elements.

Bits and pieces of this theory emerged in papers through the 70s andearly 80s. Papert turned his energies to applying these new ideas to transforming education while Minsky continued to work primarily on the theory. In 1985,he published "The Society of Mind," a book in which 270 interconnected one-page ideas reflect the structure of the theory itself. Each page either proposes one such mechanism ­ to account for some psychological phenomena ­ or addresses a problem introduced by some proposed solution of another page.

Since the publication of "The Society of Mind," Minsky has continued to develop the theory in several directions. He is currently working on a new book, "The Emotion Machine," describing the roles played by feelings, goals, emotions, and conscious thoughts in terms of processes that motivate and regulate the activities within our personal societies of mind.



  • "Neural Nets and the Brain Model Problem", 1954 -Princeton Universty
  • "Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines", 1967- Prentice-Hall
  • "SemanticI nformation Processing", 1968 - MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  • "Perceptrons", (with Seymour A. Papert) 1969 and 1988 - MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  • "Artificial Intelligence", 1972 - Univ. Oregon Press
  • "Why People Think Computers Can´t", 1982 - Associated Univ. Presses, Cranbury, NJ
  • "Robotics", 1986 - Doubleday
  • "The Society of Mind", 1987
  • "Inventingt he Confocal Microscope", 1988
  • "Simbolic vs. Connectonist", 1990, MIT Press
  • "The Turing Option", (with Harry Harrison) 1992 - Warner Books
  • "Will Robots Inherit the Earth?", 1994 - Scientific American
  • "Negative Expertise", 1994 - International Journal of Expert Systems
  • "Matter, Mind and Models", 1995 - MIT
  • "Virtual Molecular Reality", 1995 - Markus Krumenacker& James Lewis
  • "TheSociety of Mind CD ROM Version", 1996 ,
  • "The Emotion Machine", New Book (in press).
  • See also a list of his selected publications.

    Adapted from Dr. Minsky's WWW Home Page, official biography.

    Selected Resources on The Internet:
    Artificial Intelligence

    The Author

    Prof. Renato M.E. Sabbatini, PhD is a neuroscientist and a specialist in medical informatics, holding a doctoral degree in neurophysiology by the University of São Paulo, Brazil, and a post-doctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry, in Munich, Germany. He is the director of the Center for BiomedicalInformatics and associate professor and chairman of medical informaticsat the Faculty of Medical Sciences,both at the State University of Campinas,Brazil. Email:

    Copyright (c) 1998 Universidade Estadual de Campinas