Yesterday brought the sad news that Marvin Minsky passed away at age 88. I never met Minsky (I wish I had); I just had one email exchange with him back in 2002, about Stephen Wolfram’s book. But Minsky was my academic great-grandfather (through Manuel Blum and Umesh Vazirani), and he influenced me in many other ways. For example, in his and Papert’s 1968 book Perceptrons—notorious for “killing neural net research for a decade,” because of its mis- or over-interpreted theorems about the representational limitations of single-layer neural nets—the way Minsky and Papert proved those theorems was by translating questions about computation into questions about the existence or nonexistence of low-degree polynomials with various properties, and then answering the latter questions using MATH. Their “polynomial method” is now a mainstay of quantum algorithms research (having been brought to the subject by Beals et al.), and in particular, has been a mainstay of my own career. Hardly Minsky’s best-known contribution to human knowledge, but that even such a relatively minor part of his oeuvre could have legs half a century later is a testament to his impact.
I’m sure readers will have other thoughts to share about Minsky, so please do so in the comments section. Personal reminiscences are especially welcome.