Marvin Minsky and Eliezer Yudkowsky

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Date: Tue Feb 27 2001 - 14:09:16 MST

Word has now reached me that there are multiple rumors circulating about a
clash between Marvin Minsky and Eliezer Yudkowsky at a Foresight event.

This is what it looked like from my perspective:

Minsky's talk followed mine at the Fall 2000 Senior Associates Gathering.
During his talk, Marvin Minsky raised the subject of the Riemann
Hypothesis Catastrophe (as named, and credited to Minsky, in the
forthcoming paper "Friendly AI") - that an AI asked to solve the Riemann
Hypothesis would convert the Solar System into computronium. Since I'd
just given a talk that touched on Friendly AI, during the discussion
period I tried to offer a reply. I started out by stating that, under
most definitions of Friendliness, the Riemann Hypothesis Catastrophe would
constitute a subgoal stomping on a supergoal. Minsky then interrupted to
say that he didn't believe anyone could give a real definition of
Friendliness. I said that I'd get around to that in a minute, but
meanwhile I wanted to deal with the scenario as stated. Minsky then said,
I believe, "Get this person away from the microphone." I said "What?" and
then found Christine Peterson at my side, asking me to just come away.

I have no idea why Marvin Minsky did that. I hadn't been impolite. I
hadn't done anything at all that would call for a response on that level.
I felt insulted and, to be honest, pretty deeply hurt. My impression was
that Minsky had essentially used his superior status to lash out at me,
then he forgot about it.

I'd planned to forget about it too. That there are still ripples from
this incident deeply disturbs me; that rumors describe the incident as
argumentative and heated, symmetrically between me and Minsky, disturbs me
a lot more. What happened is that Minsky, for no reason I can determine,
put me down. I didn't even hit back. I just said "What?" Now, as a
result, I'm winding up with a reputation for not being able to hold my
temper. I guess the popular view of me is such that people find it easy
to imagine me lashing right back at Minsky. In person, at least, I'm not
like that. I don't think I've ever in my life gotten into a shouting
match over an intellectual disagreement.

It seems I was wrong not to discuss the incident. I have no particular
interest in pursuing a grudge with Marvin Minsky, though I'll confess that
I felt pretty disillusioned then and I still feel disillusioned now. For
the record, I didn't do anything to attack Minsky or defend myself, I
didn't write anything at all about the incident, until I found out the
hard way that the ripples hadn't just died out - that they were, in fact,
affecting other people considering me as a possible speaker. This post is
to make clear my view of what happened, and I'd like to ask all of you to
forward it on wherever these rumors are discussed.

-- -- -- -- --
Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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