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Marvin Minsky and his gizmo

Marvin_Minsky_at_OLPCb.jpgThe obits for artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, who died on January 14, have generally focused on his extraordinary work.The following, written for the Guardian in December 1995, captures a little more of the man. The piece was for a series called "Me and My Gizmo", in which well-known people discussed their favorite gadgets. I approached Minsky after a tip-off during a similar interview with John Perry Barlow, who told me that in a gizmo throw-down they were evenly matched until Minsky mentioned his belt. I've reprinted it here as I submitted it, with added hyperlinks (while we still can). If I remember correctly, Minsky later learned (with great satisfaction) that the knot he discusses here was indeed original.

"I don't have any gizmos," Marvin Minsky said at first. Then he turned them all out, one by one. He has a compass embedded in the strap of his Timex watch.He has a folding pair of pliers in his pocket that also contain a saw, a file, and a knife.

He doesn't really think of this as a gizmo. "If you don't have a pliers and a screwdriver and some knives, you can't fix things, and I can't see how anybody could ever get through a day." Minsky is best known as the father of artificial intelligence, but he's an engineer first and foremost:he holds patents on an industrial robot arm. These days, he researches little-investigated topics like why humans like music and teaches students at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One current project is the Brain Opera, due to premiere at New York City's Lincoln Center this summer.

He kept looking. There was a tiny camera in a pouch attached to his belt, and he was wearing his many-pocketed fishing vest, which he likes because one of the interior pockets is big enough to hold a copy of his book Society of Mind, which is printed on US letter-sized paper. When he tried, my Compaq Aero subnotebook fit into the pocket alongside the book.

Minsky's crowning gizmo, though, is his belt, a 30-foot rope that he's crocheted and knotted so that it will stay fastened under most circumstances but come completely undone if he pulls on one end. The current version, which he acquired in the late 1980s, is made of kevlar, which makes the rope very strong (8,000 pounds' worth of strength) but inflexible, as kevlar doesn't stretch. Previous models were made of nylon. It takes about half an hour to crochet it back together.

Minsky acquired the habit of wearing the rope on a skiing trip on Mont Blanc with fellow scientist Seymour Papert and some friends during a visit to Jean Piaget's Geneva research lab. When one of their group was afraid to ride on the ski lift, Minsky, who happened to have a rope, rigged it up so that the rope, attached to the lift, pulled her up the mountain. He decided then that he'd always have a rope, and crocheted his first belt - he has always been interested in knots, and believes that the knot that holds the belt closed is his own invention.

He'd like to verify that it's his invention, but "I can't think of where to publish it. There must be a knot journal." He stopped to investigate an unfamiliar way of tying shoes with a double bow that holds all day but that you can still pull out from one end.

Minsky was very glad of his rope belt when he and his family were visiting Norway in the late 1960s and stopped at an attractive field. When it was time to go, his daughter Margaret, now a scientist at the Media Lab but then eight years old, told him she couldn't get out. She was, it transpired, sinking into quicksand.

"She was very calm," Minsky said. "I realised I couldn't get there without sinking into whatever this was without sinking into it myself. So I undid the belt and threw an end to her and managed to pull her out. Her shoes are still there." Minsky tells this part of the story completely calmly. But when he asked in the nearby village why there was no sign warning about quicksand, they told him there was no quicksand in Norway; no one believed him. Some satisfaction creeps into his voice when he tells the aftermath: 15 years later, an article in Science about soil liquefaction vindicated the Minskys.

"It described how some little village in Norway had suddenly disappeared, because what happens is you get some kind of soil that's an unstable mixture of water and other stuff, and if there's a little seismic shock it can suddenly change its state. I should have felt sorry for them, but of course one could only think, 'I told them, and they wouldn't listen.' They're quite rare, but I was very pleased when I saw this article."

Minsky's new book is a sequel to The Society of Mind - "new ways to think," he describes it. If that sounds intellectual rather than practical, he says, "The mind is a big, complicated gadget. That's why I'm good at it. I think of it as a large collection of tricks. "The new book's title is The Emotion Machine, and it will lay out Minsky's theories about how feelings work.

"It's a kludge," he says."The reason why philosophers and people like that never got anywhere is that they had the idea that there's fundamental things - that consciousness is a mysterious thing, and it's really about 20 things which have not very much in common. It's called 'physics envy' - they looked for a few simple principles, and there aren't any."


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series.Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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