Media Lab Talks: Minsky on Education

Amy Taber
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Inventive Minds: Marvin Minsky on Education is a collection of six essays by artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky on how education can foster inventiveness, paired with commentary by Marvin's former colleagues and students. Co-editors Cynthia Solomon, who worked with Marvin at the MIT AI Lab, and Media Lab alum Xiao Xiao, joined MIT’s Hal Abelson on Friday afternoon to discuss their experience working on the book as well as insights into Minsky’s ideas about mentorship, the potential of technology in schools, and the shortcomings of conventional education.

Hal Abelson, MIT Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, began by comparing the current trend of AI explosion in education, of teaching children about AI and making AI more accessible to children at a younger age, to Minsky’s less popular ideas of AI and computational thinking.  “Minsky’s thoughts were original and controversial, and rather different from the current perspective.”  He added, “While everyone thought AI was the greatest thing, Marvin thought we should start by working on EI,” said Abelson.

Cynthia Solomon, co-developer of Logo, a programming language for children, contributor, and co-editor followed her introduction by admitting, “I want to say that because of my friendship and collaboration with Marvin, I’m often cited as someone who knows about AI. I do not.” Solomon, however, is interested in how computers can help children think about their own thinking; an area where Minsky exceled.

Solomon continued by intertwining her stories, for example the original idea for the book. “I told Marvin I wanted to see his education papers published in a little book,” The book couldn’t be just essays though so they approached former Media Lab research associate Mike Travers who wrote the into. They asked various friends and colleagues to comment on each essay, including MIT’s Alan Kay who wrote an afterward for the essay that included work with Atari – and of course, the illustrations needed to be completed. That is where Xiao Xiao excelled.

 “I met Xiao Xiao at a meeting with Marvin, at his home. She had a sketchbook.  I asked her, ‘Would you like to do some illustration for the book?’” said Solomon. Xiao who created all of the graphic designs and is co-editor for the Inventive Minds book said, “I think I’ve read these essays more than anyone else in the world.” She described how she spent hours reading and rereading the essays to make sure the images and illustrations matched the essays theme.

She compared her process with Marvin’s and how he used music to illuminate ideas in his own mind. “Marvin had a really strong relationship with music,” said Xiao. She began studying the Theremin, a touchless instrument first invented in 1920, and used this as a tool to help her get in closer touch with her mind and body, part of what Minsky talked about in his essays, including using cognitive maps. “Conceptualize what you’re trying to learn as a world you’re trying to explore,” she said. She talked about how the more you’re able to explore a place, the more familiar it becomes, and the easier it is to navigate. Children should strive to understand education in that way.

One major theme is how the mind works, not about how computers work.  “AI is the new thing and everyone wants to get a piece of that, and by that I mean everyone wants to make money from it,” said Xiao. A good way to learn about thinking about thinking is computer programming. That’s what people are discussing now with AI. That leads to the idea, central to Logo, is that writing programs even difficult ones will help children learn to think harder.

“Machine learning neural network approach is very different from the kind of modeling we were thinking about in Logo,” said Abelson. “Is it time for a new approach to computing and education? Not just good old-fashioned AI but what we’re doing with current machine learning,” queried Abelson.

You can purchase Inventive Minds Marvin Minsky on Education at MIT Press.