Marvin Minsky (1927-2016) and telepresence

[If you haven’t heard the sad news, Marvin Minsky passed away on January 24, 2016. His contribution to telepresence has rarely been mentioned in the coverage but it’s the focus of this post from IEEE Spectrum; follow the link to watch the 7:05 minute video mentioned at the end. –Matthew]

Marvin Minsky in 1980 Omni article

[Image: The June 1980 issue of Omni featured an essay by Marvin Minsky titled “Telepresence”. Photo: Erico Guizzo/IEEE Spectrum]

Video Friday: Marvin Minsky, Submersible Drone, and SLAM on a SnakeBot

By Evan Ackerman and Erico Guizzo
Posted 29 Jan 2016

Marvin Minsky, the AI pioneer and MIT professor, died on Sunday in Boston. He was 88. Dr. Minsky, an IEEE Life Fellow, made numerous seminal contributions to the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics, exploring, among other things, how a better understanding of human cognition could lead to advances in machine intelligence, and vice versa. He founded the MIT AI lab in 1959 with fellow AI pioneer John McCarthy, and among Dr. Minsky’s students is a long list of notable technologists. He’s a recipient of many honors, including the A.M. Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery and the Computer Pioneer Award from the IEEE Computer Society.

One of the countless topics that interested Dr. Minsky was teleoperated robots, and he wrote about it in the science and science fiction magazine Omni in 1980. It was a compelling and provocative essay in which Dr. Minsky envisioned a “remote-controlled economy” and coined the term “telepresence”. With Dr. Minsky’s permission, IEEE Spectrum reproduced that essay in 2010, as part of a special report on robotic telepresence.

On that occasion, I asked Dr. Minsky about his views on existing remote presence robots, and he seemed disappointed at their limitations, especially in terms of mobility. “One problem is that all those robots move on wheels, which means that they don’t have much ‘access’ to most of the world,” he said. Robots with legs would be a better approach, but he added that “their software is still far from good enough.” He explained that he wanted to see robots capable of navigating the world—as well as transporting people with mobility limitations—without requiring modifications to our existing environments. “I’d like to see a major project to develop suitable ‘leg-vehicles’ instead, and provide them to everyone who needs them—so that those people could go almost everywhere.”

Dr. Minsky was happy to find out that we had located a copy of Omni’s June 1980 issue at the New York Public Library’s main branch in Manhattan. It was stored deep in their underground vault, and I had to peruse the item under supervision. They allowed me to take photos (including the one above), and I sent a few to Dr. Minsky, who still remembered that photo shoot, when he posed with a massive robot arm built in his lab.

For more on Dr. Minsky’s life and work, read this extensive 1981 profile in the New Yorker, and obituaries in the New York Times and the MIT News website. And below, watch him speak at a MIT Media Lab 30th anniversary event last October, when Dr. Minsky received a gift in honor of “his lifetime commitment to research and to mentoring generations of MIT students.”

–Erico Guizzo

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