The Society of Mind Critical Essays

Marvin Minsky


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Describing the relationship between the brain or another physical entity and the mind has become an important part of many diverse disciplines. Understanding how the brain gives rise to thought and intelligence is one of the most profound questions in contemporary science and one to which Marvin Minsky has devoted his career at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Society of Mind is a compilation of his theories and ideas about intelligence and the possibility of its creation in machines.

One of the major points Minsky makes about intelligence is that commonsense reasoning is more difficult to describe and explain than is logical rule-bound reasoning. Thus, it has been easier to program computers to play chess than to build a children’s tower. When Minsky makes this assertion, however, he neglects to specify that computer chess-playing programs do not recognize the pieces through a visual mechanism nor do they physically grasp and move the pieces, which are part of the requirements for his computer program “Builder.”

The Society of Mind is primarily concerned with explaining how humans learn to think and solve problems. The theory of intelligence formulated here is indebted to the concepts of learning investigated by Jean Piaget. Small children, as they gain knowledge, motor skills, and the ability to understand sensory data and relate them to a meaningful reality, are the model for learning and intelligence. Minsky has collaborated with Seymour Papert, a student of Piaget, to recognize and formulate some understanding of the principles which underlie human learning strategies. One example discussed in detail throughout several essays is the way children learn to recognize amounts. For example, a five-year-old child will watch as water is poured from one container into a taller, thinner container and will say that the taller container now has more water in it. By the time a child is seven, he or she will typically realize that it is the same amount of water. Minsky places this specific and universal process into a large and complex “society-of-more.” The concept of “more” applies to many diverse elements, all of which need some organizing principles in order to relate to one another and to the larger society. This requires hierarchical systems which relate the lower level agencies to the higher level concepts. Minsky’s diagrams demonstrate Papert’s principle: “Some of the most crucial steps in mental growth are based not simply on acquiring new skills, but on acquiring new administrative ways to use what one already knows.”

Minsky presents the way children learn meaning as primarily through an experience of trial and error. His examples are drawn from a physical experience that the child has which relates to an understanding of a concept or a...

(The entire section is 1175 words.)