"Ray Solomonoff, Pioneer in Artificial Intelligence, Dies at 83"
January 10th, 2010
The New York Times
January 10th, 2010
The New York Times
Ray Solomonoff, a physicist who was one of the founders of the field of artificial intelligence, died on Dec. 7 in Boston. He was 83 and had homes in New Ipswich, N.H., and Cambridge, Mass.
The cause was a ruptured brain aneurysm, said his wife, Grace.
As a child Mr. Solomonoff developed what would become a lifelong passion for mathematical theorems, and as a teenager he became captivated with idea of creating machines that could learn and ultimately think.
In 1952 he met Marvin Minsky, a cognitive scientist who was also exploring the idea of machine learning, and John McCarthy, a young mathematician. In 1956 he became one of the 10 scientists who took part in the original Dartmouth Summer Research Project, whose organizers included Mr. Minsky and Mr. McCarthy, and which coined the term “artificial intelligence” and was instrumental in creating the field.
In 1960 Mr. Solomonoff developed the idea of algorithmic probability, which emerged from his effort to grapple with a problem of induction: Given a long sequence of symbols describing real-world events, how can you extrapolate the sequence? The idea gave rise to a new approach to probability theory.
Mr. Solomonoff went on to pioneer the application of probability theory to solving artificial intelligence problems. But in the 1960s and 1970s he was ahead of his time, and the approach initially had little impact on the field. More recently, probability theory has caught on among artificial intelligence researchers; it is now the dominant approach.
“Ray did early work on the theoretical foundations of learning systems, focused on understanding how to generate and assign probabilities to sequences of symbols — which could be mapped to the challenge of predicting what comes next, given what you’ve seen so far,” said Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft computer scientist and a former president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. “Beyond his core technical work, he was an omnipresent and passionate proponent of the probabilistic approach to A.I., on the promise of building intelligent computing systems that could learn and reason under uncertainty.”
His work in the early 1960s predated the research of the Russian mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov, who also did pioneering research in information theory and later acknowledged Mr. Solomonoff’s prior contributions.
Mr. Solomonoff would later turn his attention to the consequences of artificial intelligence and in 1985 wrote a paper that speculated on the cost and the time it would take to develop a machine with many times the intelligence of a group of humans. He called this the “infinity point.” The idea predated the prediction of the computer scientist Vernor Vinge, who in 1993 speculated on a similar evolution in machine intelligence, which he called “the singularity.”
Born in Cleveland on July 25, 1926, Mr. Solomonoff was the son of Russian immigrants, Julius and Sarah Solomonoff. He studied physics at the University of Chicago and graduated with a master’s degree in 1951.
Fiercely independent, he would remain self-employed for much of his life, taking a variety of visiting scholar positions. In 2001 he was a visiting professor at the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Lugano, Switzerland, and more recently he was a visiting professor at the Computer Learning Research Center at Royal Holloway, University of London.
He is survived by his wife.
Mr. Solomonoff enjoyed building things, and in the 1960s he built himself a home in New Hampshire. It was heated by two rows of light bulbs in the ceiling, a feat made possible by thick insulation and inserts to cover the windows.
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