In Memoriam: March 2016

IEEE mourns the loss of the following members

29 March 2016

Marvin Minsky

Artificial intelligence pioneer

Life Fellow, 88; died 24 January

Minsky, a professor emeritus at MIT, helped establish the field of artificial intelligence by showing it was possible for computers to use common-sense reasoning.

After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Harvard and a Ph.D., also in mathematics, from Princeton.

He began his career as a researcher at Harvard, where he designed and built some of the first visual scanners and mechanical hands with tactile sensors. In 1951 he built the first randomly wired neural-network learning machine, which he called the Snarc. Five years later, he invented the confocal scanning microscope, an instrument with high resolution and image quality that is still used by biologists.

 Minsky joined MIT in 1958 as a professor of computer science. The following year he helped found the school’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with colleague John McCarthy, who was later credited with coining the term artificial intelligence. At the lab, Minsky worked on computational methods to characterize human psychological processes and developed theories on how to make machines more intelligent.

In Minsky’s seminal paper “Steps Toward Artificial Intelligence,” he divided the problems of heuristic programming—getting computers to draw from past experiences—into five areas: search, pattern recognition, learning, planning, and induction. The paper was published in 1960 by one of IEEE’s predecessor societies, the Institute of Radio Engineers, in Proceedings of the IRE.

In the early 1970s he collaborated with computer scientist Seymour Papert on a theory that combined insights from developmental child psychology and AI research. They proposed that there is no real difference between the way humans and machines learn. In 1987 Minsky authored The Society of Mind (Simon and Schuster), a book based on that theory. He published a second book in 2006, The Emotion Machine (Simon and Schuster), which discusses consciousness, emotions, and common sense.

Minsky was elevated to IEEE Fellow in 1968 “for his research and educational leadership in the field of artificial intelligence and heuristic programming.” The following year, he received the A.M. Turing Award, the Association for Computing Machinery’s highest honor, “for his central role in creating, shaping, promoting, and advancing the field of artificial intelligence.”


Alan Berenbaum

Computer engineer

Member, 64; died 27 January

Berenbaum was a senior architect at Microchip Technology in Hauppauge, N.Y. He died of lymphoma.

He earned a master’s degree in computer science from Princeton and was a computer engineer for more than 25 years at Bell Labs, in Murray Hill, N.J. In 2005 he joined Standard Microsystems Corp. (now Microchip Technologies), where he designed chips. He was also an adjunct professor of engineering at the Cooper Union, in New York City.

Berenbaum was a member of the IEEE Communications and IEEE Computer societies.

He received a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Yale.


John Wyatt

Retinal implant pioneer

Senior Member, 69; died 3 February

Wyatt helped develop a prosthetic that restores sight to people with damaged retinas.

He joined MIT in 1979 as a researcher and became a professor of electrical engineering and computer science there in 1990. In the late 1980s, he started the Boston Retinal Implant Project, which featured a multidisciplinary team of biologists, clinicians, and engineers who created a prosthetic that could be implanted underneath the retina. The device receives data from a tiny camera mounted on the person’s eyeglasses—which in turn stimulates nerve cells and sends images to the brain, bypassing the damaged retina. Wyatt helped found Bionic Eye Technologies in 2012 to commercialize the technologies that were developed at Boston Retinal.

He was a member of the IEEE Circuits and Systems and IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology societies.

Wyatt received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1968 from MIT and a master’s degree, also in EE, in 1970 from Princeton. He earned a Ph.D. in EE in 1979 from the University of California, Berkeley.

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