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In this book the author attempts to explain the workings of the human mind as a collection of a large number of autonomous mindless connected agents. The approach is metaphorical/philosophical, and no empirical evidence is given for the ideas expounded. The "society of mind", composed as it is of a collection of simple objects, is purely reductionist in its strategy and philosophy. It is though a highly original and thought provoking introduction to the major questions involving mental states, concept formation in the brain, learning theory, and artificial intelligence. The author gives many interesting examples that entice the reader to "think out of the box".
The book itself is written as though each chapter were itself one of these agents. Typically a chapter poses a question or a particular phenomenon, and the author then addresses how the mind would implement of resolve this question or deal with this phenomenon. Some interesting chapters in the book include:
1. Self-Knowledge is Dangerous: The author argues that mental constraints are needed to prevent the individual from artificially creating emotional states that would prevent deliberate action on our part. An intelligent machine will then need to have such constraints in order to prevent it from repeating endlessly the same activity.
2. Learning from Failure: Minsky argues that confining oneself to positive learning experiences will not be as robust or effective as one that will involve some kind of discomfort or pain. Such discomfort will enable more radical changes in conceptual structure.
3. Power of Negative Thinking: The author argues that an optimistic problem-solving strategy is contingent on the ability to recognize several paths to the solution, with the best path then selected. When such knowledge is not available, a "pessimistic" strategy is more optimal. The solution in this case is one that at first glance seems the worst possible avenue of approach.
4. Emotion: The question is posed as to whether machines can be intelligent without any emotions. The author seems to be arguing, and plausibly I think, that emotions serve as a defense against competing interests when a goal is set. Emotional responses occur when the most important goal(s) are disrupted by other influences. Intelligent machines then will need to have the many complex checks and balances.
5. Must Machines be Logical: It is argued correctly that intelligent machines must employ reasoning tools other then ones that are strictly logical. Logic is strictly a side constraint, a test that prevents invalid conclusions. It cannot by itself lead to genuine knowledge.
6. Mathematics Made Hard: Minsky argues that the strategy behind the construction of mathematical systems, via strict definitions and categorization, results in systems that have very small "meaning" content. More robust systems must be developed and integrated into the educational process and into any design for intelligent machines.
7. Weighing Evidence: There is an interesting example of a collection of four index cards on two of which are connected line patterns, and on the other two disconnected line patterns. When the cards are cut into many pieces, and put into separate piles, then a machine with a feature weighing capability would be unable to distinguish between the piles.
8. The Mind and the World: The author's thinking on the mind-body problem is a very sensible one, namely that "minds are simply what brains do". It matters not, according to the author, what the substance of mind (brain) is, only what it (the agents) do.
A few omissions in the book include the discussion on intelligence: the author never really gives his outlook or "definition" of intelligence, but merely comments on a few other opinions on this concept. If one is to make "intelligent" machines, it is important that intelligence be characterized explicitly so that one will know when and if the goal of artificial intelligence has been reached. The author correctly argues however that expert systems can and have been successfully constructed, and that the most formidable obstacle to constructing an "intelligent" machine is in implementing the ability of humans to exercise "common sense".
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on February 28, 2005
In this book Minsky tries, as have many scientists before him, to explain what seems unexplainable. Even though in present day, many people believe in science over magic, the majority still believes that the brain is somehow magical and cannot be replicated. Minsky asks what stops us from building a brain out of steel instead of carbon? He breaks down the mind in a way that anyone can understand how it works.

I'm almost 14 and in the 8th grade. I picked up this book for a research project on Cognitive Psychology because it was the only thing I could find that wasn't written for graduate students. Not only could I understand it, but it kept my attention (unlike most non-fiction books) and I enjoyed reading it. I liked how Minsky could take the most complex thing in the world, the brain, and describe it in easy to understand terms. There were many pictures and diagrams used to represent the text. For example, to show the basics of how the mind works using many separate agents, Minsky used the example of a child building a tower out of blocks and how the agent in the child's mind, called "builder" and all of "builder's" agents beneath it created the tower out of blocks.

I recommend this book for anyone curious about what goes on in the mind to cause people's actions as well as anyone interested in artificial intelligence.
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on June 16, 1998
This book does more to explain the fundamental structure of the human mind than all the volumes of developmental psychology that I've read. In a step-by-step process, Minsky constructs a believable thesis for a way in which the human mind in all its complexity can be built up, layer by layer, from the interactions of "agents", functional subroutines. Some agents are hard-wired by evolution and some are learned. The learned ones stay in consciousness only while they are being built and then become the substrate for higher-level constructs. "The Society of Mind" had shaped the way I look at consciousness.
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on April 16, 2001
I have been reading many books concerened with artificial intelligence and the mind during the past years. Many of them drift off into endless philosophy, or get into too much psychological analysis.
Compared to other books out there, this one is easy to read, and is deeply inspiring. Chapters are concise, and comprehendible. I would recommend this book to anybody who is new to AI and overall theories of the mind.
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on August 8, 2003
The fundamental assumption underlying the principles in the book is that the mind is a result of many small and independent pieces that act in a predictable way and CANNOT think for themselves - but that the result (the mind) CAN think. Of course, the title 'The Society of the Mind' is not a good fit to the ideas in the book because Society and its parts (individual minds) can BOTH think.
But leaving these kind of simple inconsistencies and incongruencies (I discovered at least a couple after some deep thinking) to the side, this book makes for an absolutely fascinating read if you are interested in the subject of how the mind works. The approach is very unique, and the ideas are thought provoking. There are 270 components in the book grouped into 30 chapters and each component takes up 1-2 pages to explain the idea and some basic logic supporting the idea presented in that component. The book has 339 pages in case you are wondering (including the index).
The format of the book makes it very convenient to pick up the book once in a while and read 5-6 ideas in a 15 minute sitting. Of course, to get the most benefit from the book, you have to read one chapter at a time as each chapter contains ideas that are interconnected. The best approach would be to finish reading the book in 2 or 3 sittings so you can connect all the ideas. The author does warn you at the beginning that there are a lot of cross-connections between the different ideas that you may miss. You have to take this advice into consideration and pay extra attention to connecting the ideas in order to get the real theory that the author is trying to communicate. He never actually explains the theory in a nutshell. He leaves it to the reader to come to some conclusions that hopefully will match the author's theory.
Marvin Minsky cofounded the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT and this book gets accolades from some very well known and popular figures like Douglas Hofstadter, Michael Crichton, and Gene Roddenberry.
The book has numerous thought experiments that are fun to do! There are also references made to the works of some very eminent scientists and thinkers. The best part about the book is the simplicity of Dr. Minsky's theory on how the Mind works. The second best part about the book is the really elegant way he explains his theory.
The first downside to the book - the actual theory is never explained explicitly but contained implicitly in the different ideas presented throughout the book. The second downside to the book - there isn't clear logic backing some of the ideas and you have to take the author's word for it.
My opinion in a nutshell - this is a book definitely worth buying for your personal book collection. I have thoroughly enjoyed this book for several years now and even though I personally disagree with some of the ideas in the book (you may quickly find yourself feeling the same way), I believe that it is a beautiful work. Enjoy reading this book, you won't regret the time or the few dollars spent.
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on March 4, 1999
Mr. Minsky's book is a true nugget of golden wisdom. A broken-down, step-by-step guide to the elements of thought and action. Tired of self-important terminology and baroque explanation in the realm of psychology? Pick up this brilliant mind's prosaic, simply worded and lucidly illustrated work on the subject of how our minds work. He is the Bob Villa of consciousness.
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on April 23, 2015
Despite being 30 years old now, this book was an engaging read that doesn't seem to be very far off from what the state-of-the-art thinking in neuroscience/artificial intelligence seems to be. I picked it up after reading Ray Kurzweil's How To Create A Mind, as it was mentioned a few times as a classic work. While this was much less of a "blueprint" book, it explored a number of different themes regarding why the brain must be wired up in a certain way to explain certain behaviors. I found this to be quite thought provoking and definitely worth a read, even today.
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VINE VOICEon September 11, 2006
The Society of Mind attempts to explain how the mind works. The author considers the mind to be a society of small mental machines that do simple things by themselves but combine to perform amazingly complex tasks like the walking and talking that we take for granted. As this book was written in the 1980's I am sure that it is somewhat out of date. But the questions he asks are timeless. How does memory work? How do we sense space? How do we process conflicting ideas? How do we know when to replace a memory with a more accurate version? This book will make you think about these questions and more. The Society of Mind is worth reading just for the questions it asks.
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on February 15, 2014
"Society of Mind" is what Marvin Minsky calls the apparatus created from the myriad (and myriad tiered) sets of robotic yes-no hot-cold now-later kinds of decisions that take place when we're hit by external stimuli. The brain, our "intelligence" (not in Minsky's terms) is the way that these non-intelligent, non-aware processes have evolved in such a way that the entire structure that they are a part of (you, the organism, are a part of) could persist the longest period of time. In other words, it's not so much that a controlling, guiding central-core has evolved that keeps these lower level entities in line, rather, entirely the opposite! When you are confronted with problem of controlling robotic, unintelligent devices, the key control necessary is to make it extremely difficult for ANY ONE process to gain control, because if it does, and it's decision is a mistake, you might jump over the cliff.

You have to understand that, for Minsky, explaining intelligence is meaningless if you cannot show a line of cookie crumbs leading from the "intelligent" behavior to a set of un-intelligent (A-B, HOT-COLD, etc.) set of processes that created it. Clearly, if you cannot do that, you have made a circular argument.
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Minsky has assembled 270 of his essays into this handy compendium. Each is somewhat of an epigram; only one page long, including an occasional diagram. The topics all revolve around the mind and intelligence. You can treat this book casually, by randomly reading an occasional page. Or you can plough through its entirety.

Written over several decades, the essays give an incisive view into many aspects of intelligence. Hence, Minksy explains why some university level topics like calculus were relatively easy to program. But why "elementary" tasks like having a program do the equivalent of a 3 year old kid recognise and arrange building blocks have proved to be enormously harder.
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