The Brain Is Merely a Meat Machine

Marvin Minsky? Joseph Weizenbaum? Pamela McCorduck? Edward Fredkin? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Within computer science the discipline of artificial intelligence (AI) is focused on analyzing and constructing entities that display advanced cognitive behaviors. These entities are designed to learn, solve problems, and achieve goals. Critics of the field contend that machines cannot embody genuine intelligence and understanding. An advocate of machine intelligence apparently formulated the following provocative retort:

The brain is merely a meat machine.

Would you please explore the provenance of this remark?

Quote Investigator: In May 1972 M.I.T. computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum published a piece in the journal “Science” titled “On the Impact of the Computer on Society”. Weizenbaum believed that retaining the autonomy, freedom, and dignity of humans was essential to civilization. He also thought that the advent of advanced computer systems need not undermine the perceived worth of human life. Yet, he feared that the elevation of crude and over-simplified computer models of human behavior such as those developed by the 1970s might damage societal values. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The possibility that the computer will, one way or another, demonstrate that, in the inimitable phrase of one of my esteemed colleagues, “the brain is merely a meat machine” is one that engages academicians, industrialists, and journalists in the here and now. How has the computer contributed to bringing about this very sad state of affairs? It must be said right away that the computer alone is not the chief causative agent.

In the passage above from 1972, Weizenbaum did not name the author of the quotation; however, many years later when he was near the end of his life he wrote an article for the journal “IEEE Annals of the History of Computing” in which he ascribed the remark to colleague Marvin Minsky: 2

Perhaps the most (in)famous and illustrious American computer scientist and acknowledged principal pioneer of the discipline now known as artificial intelligence (AI), Professor Marvin Minsky of MIT, once pronounced—a belief he still holds—that “the brain is merely a meat machine.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Brain Is Merely a Meat Machine


  1. 1972 May 12, Science, Volume 176, Number 4035, On the Impact of the Computer on Society by Joseph Weizenbaum, Start Page 609, Quote Page 610, Column 3, American Association for the Advancement of Science. (JSTOR) link
  2. 2008 July-September, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Volume 30, Number 3, Social and Political Impact of the Long-term History of Computing by Joseph Weizenbaum, Start Page 40, Quote Page 41, published by IEEE Computer Society, New York. (IEEE Xplore Digital Library)

If We’re Lucky, Robots Might Decide To Keep Us as Pets

Isaac Asimov? Marvin Minsky? Paul Saffo? Edward Fredkin? Bruce Sterling?

Dear Quote Investigator: Reportedly, a top researcher in artificial intelligence once said something like:

Humans will be lucky if superintelligent robots treat them as pets.

At some point a grim elaboration was appended:

If humans are unlucky, they will be treated as food.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1970 “LIFE” magazine journalist Brad Darrach wrote an article about Shakey the Robot, an early mobile robot built at the Stanford Research Institute. The primitive device was grandly called the “first electronic person” within the article title. Darrach interviewed Marvin Minsky, a leading researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who was quoted making a startling prediction: 1

In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being. I mean a machine that will be able to read Shakespeare, grease a car, play office politics, tell a joke, have a fight. At that point the machine will begin to educate itself with fantastic speed. In a few months it will be at genius level and a few months after that its powers will be incalculable.

Minsky and a colleague warned that intelligent computers should not be put in control of indispensable systems; instead, they must be carefully controlled. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

The problem of computer control will have to be solved, Minsky and Papert believe, before computers are put in charge of systems essential to society’s survival. If a computer directing the nation’s economy or its nuclear defenses ever rated its own efficiency above its ethical obligation, it could destroy man’s social order—or destroy man. “Once the computers got control,” says Minsky, “we might never get it back. We would survive at their sufferance. If we’re lucky, they might decide to keep us as pets.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order including a 1985 passage asserting that Minsky denied making the statement about pets. Continue reading If We’re Lucky, Robots Might Decide To Keep Us as Pets


  1. 1970 November 20, LIFE, Meet Shaky, the first electronic person: The fascinating and fearsome reality of a machine with a mind of its own by Brad Darrach, Start Page 58B, Quote Page 58D, 66, and 68, Time Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View)