6.803 | Spring 2019 | Undergraduate

The Human Intelligence Enterprise

Schedule of Activities

Minsky provides a problem set


Steps toward Artificial Intelligence” by Marvin Minsky

Estimated reading time: 2.0 hours

This paper is a slog in parts, as Minsky is often telegraphic or vague or both in his explanations, because this is, after all, a survey of nascent ideas. Do not get bogged down in the occasional mathematics and obscure examples. Be sure to read the first few and the last few pages when you are fresh.


[Note: If you discuss the paper or the assignment with another student—which we encourage—indicate whom you have talked with in your submitted composition. Of course your submitted composition must be written entirely by you.]

On a total of one side of one sheet of paper, using 10 pt type or larger, with standard interline spacing and margins, respond to all the following:

There has been a disturbance in the force. Suddenly, you are transported into the body of a distinguished professor at a prestigious university.

The year is 1961, just after Minsky’s paper appeared. Minsky has been on the Mathematic’s Department’s faculty as an Assistant Professor since 1957. Evidently, he wants to move to Electrical Engineering because that is where the action is with computers. Evidently, the department chair contemplates a promotion with tenure.

You receive the following letter:

Dear Professor You:

We are considering Professor Marvin Minsky for appointment as an Associate Professor, with tenure, in the Electrical Engineering Department here at MIT. To help us in this process, we would like to have your critical evaluation of Professor Minsky’s qualifications. In particular, we would appreciate any comments you can provide concerning:

  • His major contributions, their significance, and how they have influenced others;
  • His standing in his field (an indication of the worldwide leaders in the field, together with your assessment of his relative position in that group, would be especially helpful);
  • His abilities as a teacher;
  • The quality and stature of his former graduate students;
  • His qualities as an intellectual leader;
  • His potential for further professional growth and leadership.

The more specific you can be in your comments, the more helpful your evaluation will be. For your reference, we are enclosing Professor Minsky’s CV and some of his recent papers.

An essential component of the evaluation process at MIT is the solicitation of written assessments from persons familiar with the individual’s character, research and teaching capabilities, and academic qualifications. In order to assure the most candid and useful evaluations, we have traditionally accorded such assessments the highest degree of confidentiality.

In order to meet our deadlines, we will need your reply by Wednesday, February 13. I very much appreciate your help and look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely yours,

K. L. O’Watt Head, Electrical Engineering Department

You are to respond to this letter as best you can, having lost the CV and all the papers except for “Steps toward Artificial Intelligence.”

Following your usual practice, you totally ignore requests for information you cannot supply, so you will not say anything, for example, about teaching or former graduate students.

Based on your reading of his paper, however, you do have an opinion on the merits of the appointment. You know that your opinion will not count much unless you demonstrate a genuine familiarity with the candidate’s work. Accordingly, you decide you will include at least the following (after looking up the definition of seminal):

  • A discussion that starts with: “‘Steps toward Artificial Intelligence’ is a seminal paper because…”
  • A discussion of similarities or differences or both in the views expressed by Turing and Minsky.

Also, during your reading, in preparation for classroom discussion if you have taken 6.034 Artificial Intelligence or 6.036 Introduction to Machine Learning, note what topics in those subjects are anticipated in the paper.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2019
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments