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Minsky’s thoughts on thinking

A new collection of essays reveals Marvin Minsky’s views on how we learn.
October 23, 2018
Book cover of Inventive Minds
Book cover of Inventive Minds

Marvin Minsky is famous for his many pioneering contributions to the field of artificial intelligence—including founding MIT’s first AI Lab. But Minsky, who died in 2016, also had a broader interest in human learning and cognition.

His thoughts on that topic are collected in Inventive Minds: Marvin Minsky on Education (MIT Press, 2018), which comprises six essays, many published here for the first time. Several of them sprang from a collaboration with the Media Lab’s Seymour Papert through the One Laptop Per Child project. Accompanied by commentary from former colleagues and students, the essays provide a unique glimpse into Minsky’s mind.

“Marvin left this city of ideas behind,” says Xiao Xiao ’09, SM ’11, PhD ’16, who co-edited the book with Cynthia Solomon and also illustrated it. “We’re just adding a society around it.” In his essays, Minsky “challenges a lot of norms,” she says, and addresses what she calls some “really misguided ideas” about learning and education in American society.

Xiao bonded with Minsky over a shared interest in music when she was a graduate student at the Media Lab. When she gave a demo of a prototype of her music-based project called MirrorFugue at a Media Lab event, he wanted to try it out himself. Minsky, she notes wryly, was what his wife called a “piano detective.” If there was a piano in a building, he would invariably find it.

His search to understand intelligence led him to think of people as machines—which Xiao says he viewed as a good thing. In one essay, by imagining human thought as “modules,” he envisions people becoming more in touch with their internal processes. Instead of thinking, “I want a piece of cake,” people could think, “One of my modules wants a piece of cake,” thus leaving room for other modules to disagree (perhaps because you already ate a piece of cake and don’t really need another).

Minsky believed that helping children (and adults) gain greater control over their mental processes gives them tools for “constructing better views of themselves,” as he put it, and improves their ability to learn. Reading his essays, Xiao says, she came across ideas she would “think about for days.”

Because of Minsky, Xiao thinks of learning as “building a structure in your mind,” noting that the more you do it, the easier it gets. Something you’ve learned in one place may form the foundation for understanding something else. “Learning how to learn is the most important skill,” she says, echoing one of Minsky’s lessons. “It’s impossible for somebody to learn one thing and only rely on that for the rest of their lives. We always need to be learning.”

Inventive Minds: Marvin Minsky on Education 
By Marvin Minsky
Edited by Cynthia Solomon and Xiao Xiao ’09, SM ’11, PhD ’16
MIT Press, 2018, $15.95

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