Within a Generation . . . the Problems of Creating Artificial Intelligence Will Be Substantially Solved

Marvin Minsky? Herbert A. Simon? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A top researcher in computer science in the 1960s contended that the problem of building machines with artificial intelligence (AI) would be largely solved within a generation. A statement of this type has been attributed to Marvin Minsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1967 Marvin Minsky published “Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines” which included the following passage: 1

Today we have the beginnings: machines that play games, machines that learn to play games; machines that handle abstract — non-numerical — mathematical problems and deal with ordinary-language expressions; and we see many other activities formerly confined within the province of human intelligence. Within a generation, I am convinced, few compartments of intellect will remain outside the machine’s realm—the problems of creating “artificial intelligence” will be substantially solved.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1960 Nobel-prize winning economist Herbert A. Simon published “The New Science of Management Decision”, and he also made a prediction about machines: 2

. . . machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work that a man can do.

A separate article about Simon’s quotation is available here.

In 1972 philosopher and AI critic Hubert L. Dreyfus published “What Computers Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason”, and he referred to Minsky’s prediction: 3

Is there, thus, any reason to be confident that these programs are approaching the “superior heuristics for managing their knowledge structure” which Minsky believed human beings must have; or, as Minsky claims in another of his books, that

within a generation . . . few compartments of intellect will remain outside the machine’s realm—the problem of creating “artificial intelligence” will be substantially solved.”

In 2005 science journalist Ellen Ullman referred to Minsky’s prediction, but she also noted that he had subsequently revised his stance: 4

In 1967 the influential MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky declared, “Within a generation the problem of creating ‘artificial intelligence’ will be substantially solved.” But by 1982 he was less sanguine about the prospects, saying, “The AI problem is one of the hardest science has ever undertaken.”

In 2014 an article on the “Technology Review” website referred to the quotation: 5

By 1967, progress in computing technology had been so rapid that Minsky, in his book Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines, was emboldened to write, “Within a generation, I am convinced, few compartments of intellect will remain outside the machine’s realm—the problems of creating ‘artificial intelligence’ will be substantially solved.” Minsky’s prediction, of course, was overly optimistic.

In conclusion, Marvin Minsky deserves credit for the words he wrote in 1967. The term “a generation” is not strictly defined. Minsky passed away in 2016, but many researchers working in 1967 are still alive. Also, many researchers of the subsequent generation are still active. The future timelines of major technological developments have always contained uncertainties.

Image Notes: Public domain image of two robots standing on a planet with a moon backdrop from kellepics at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to the anonymous researcher whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1967, Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines by Marvin L. Minsky (Professor of Electrical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Chapter 1: Physical Machines and Their Abstract Counterparts, Section 1.0: What Is a Machine?, Quote Page 2, Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1960, The New Science of Management Decision by Herbert A. Simon (Professor of Administration, Graduate School of Industrial Administration, Carnegie Institute of Technology), Chapter: Organizational Design: Man-Machine Systems for Decision Making, Lecture III, Date: April 7, 1960, Quote Page 38, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1972, What Computers Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason by Hubert L. Dreyfus, Part I: Ten Years of Research in Artificial Intelligence (1957-1967), Section 2: Phase II (1962-1967) Semantic Information Processing, Quote Page 58, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 2005, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005, Edited by Jonathan Weiner, Dining With Robots by Ellen Ullman from The American Scholar, Start Page 261, Quote Page 264, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  5. Website: Technology Review, Article title: Mens et Apparata, Article author: Larry Hardesty, Date on website: April 23, 2014, Website description: Technology and science news from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Accessed technologyreview.com on March 4, 2021) link