February 29, 2024

Edward Fredkin, despite never graduating from college, became an influential professor of computer science at MIT, a pioneer of artificial intelligence, and a maverick theorist, arguing that the entire universe might resemble The idea of ​​running like a mainframe computer. June 13, Brooklyn, MA. He is 88 years old.

His son Richard confirmed his death in hospital.

Fueled by a seemingly limitless scientific imagination and indifference to conventional thinking, Professor Friedkin has had a career of infinite variation, which may have nothing to do with the iconoclastic theories that made him a force in computer science and physics Just as mind-twisting.

“Ed Friedkin thinks more in a day than most people think in a month,” Gerald Sussman, a professor of electrical engineering and a longtime MIT colleague, said in a phone interview. “Most of them were bad, and he’d agree with me. But there were some good ideas in them too. So he’s had more good ideas in his life than most.”

After serving as a fighter pilot in the Air Force in the early 1950s, Professor Fredkin became a noted and unconventional scientific thinker. He was a close friend and intellectual sparring partner of renowned physicist Richard Feynman and computer scientist Marvin Minsky, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence.

An autodidact, he left college after a year, but at 34 he became a full professor of computer science at MIT. He later taught at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Boston University.

Not content to confine his energies to ivory towers, Professor Fredkin founded a company in 1962 that produced programmable film readers that allowed computers to analyze data captured by cameras, such as Air Force radar information.

The company, Information International, went public in 1968 and brought him his fortune. He used his new wealth to buy a Caribbean island in the British Virgin Islands and traveled there in a Cessna 206 seaplane. The island lacked potable water, so Professor Fredkin developed a reverse osmosis technology to desalinate seawater and turned it into another business.

He eventually sold the Mosquito Island property to British billionaire Richard Branson for $25 million.

Professor Friedkin’s life is full of paradoxes, so his life is also taken for granted. Friedkin’s ParadoxAs we all know, suppose When a person is deciding between two options, the more similar they are, the more time people will spend agonizing over the decision, even though the difference in choosing one or the other may be insignificant. Conversely, people are likely to spend less time making a decision when the difference is larger or more meaningful.

As an early researcher of artificial intelligence half a century ago, Professor Fredkin foreshadowed the current debate about superintelligent machines.

“It requires a combination of engineering and science, and we already have engineering,” Fredkin told The New York Times in 1977. “We don’t have to know everything about humans in order to make machines that think better than humans.” . We still don’t know feathers, but we can fly.”

As a starting point, he paved the way for machines to beat the Bobby Fishers of the world. Professor Fredkin, the developer of an early chess processing system, created the Fredkin Prize in 1980, which awards a $100,000 prize to anyone who can develop the first computer program and win the world chess championship.

In 1997, a team of IBM programmers did just that, turning the six figure bounty When their computer “Deep Blue” beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

“I have no doubt that a computer will eventually beat the reigning world chess champion,” Professor Friedkin said. said at the time. “The question has always been when.”

Edward Fredkin was born in Los Angeles on October 2, 1934, the youngest of four children of Russian immigrants. His father, Manuel Fredkin, ran a chain of radio stations, which closed during the Great Depression. His mother, Rose (Spiegel) Fredkin, was a pianist.

As a young man, Edward had less cerebral and social skills, avoiding sports and school dances, preferring to indulge in hobbies such as building rockets, designing fireworks, and dismantling and rebuilding old alarm clocks. “I’ve always gotten along well with machines,” he said atlantic monthly 1988.

After high school, he attended Caltech in Pasadena, where he studied with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling. However, lured by a desire to fly, he left school in his sophomore year to enlist in the Air Force.

During the Korean War, he was trained to fly fighter jets. But his prodigious skills in mathematics and technology have him working on military computer systems rather than in combat. To further study computer science, the Air Force eventually sent him to MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a wellspring of Pentagon-funded technological innovation.

This was the start of his long tenure at MIT, where in the 1960s he helped develop an early version of the multi-access computer as part of a Pentagon-funded project called the ” MAC project. The program also explored machine-assisted cognition, an early study of artificial intelligence.

“He was one of the first computer programmers in the world,” Professor Sussman said.

Professor Fredkin was elected Director of the program in 1971 and became a full-time faculty member shortly thereafter.

As his career progressed, he continued to challenge mainstream scientific thinking. He made major advances in reversible computing, an esoteric field that combines computer science and thermodynamics.

With two innovations—the computer model of billiards he developed with Tommaso Toffoli and the Fredkin Gate—he demonstrated that computation is not inherently irreversible. These advances show that computing does not need to consume energy by overwriting intermediate results of calculations, and it is theoretically possible to build a computer that consumes no energy or generates heat.

But none of his insights has been more controversial than his famous theory of digital physics, making him a leading theorist in this niche field.

As author and popular science writer Robert Wright described in The Universe as One Supercomputer 1988 The Atlantic Monthly, based on the idea that “information is more fundamental than matter and energy”. Mr Wright said Professor Friedkin believed that “atoms, electrons and quarks are ultimately made of bits – binary units of information, like the currency of computation in a PC or pocket calculator.”

As Professor Fredkin puts it in that article, DNA, the building block of heredity, is “a good example of digitally encoded information”.

“Information that hints at what the organism or plant will be is encoded,” he said. “It has its representation in DNA, right? Well, now there’s a process that takes that information and translates it into living things.”

Even a creature as mundane as a mouse, he concluded, “is a large and complex information process.”

Professor Fredkin and his first wife, Dorothy Fredkin, divorced in 1980. In addition to his son Richard, he is survived by his wife, Joycelin. He has a son, Michael, and two daughters, Sally and Susan, from his first marriage; a brother, Norman; sister Joan Entz; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson .

In his later years, Professor Friedkin’s theory of the universe, while interesting, remained marginal. “Most physicists don’t think this is true,” Professor Sussman said. “I’m also not sure that Fredkin believed that to be true. But there’s a lot to be learned by thinking about it this way.”

By contrast, his early views on artificial intelligence seem increasingly prescient.

“In the distant future we will not know what computers are doing and why,” he told The Times in 1977. “If two of them talk, they will say more in one second than all the words in a lifetime.” All people who have ever lived on this planet. “

Even so, unlike many doomsayers today, he doesn’t feel the existential dread. “Once there are apparently intelligent machines,” he said, “they’re not going to be interested in stealing our toys or ruling us, any more than they’re going to be interested in ruling chimpanzees or taking nuts from squirrels.”

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