This seminal work on how a brain might make a mind is just as relevant today as when it was first published twenty years ago. Minsky explains how lots of very simple agents might come together as agencies and result in intelligent behaviour. The structure of the book reflects this architecture -- each individual page is a short "chapter" explaining some nugget of the theory, and the cumulative effect is the totality of the argument. Some of the ideas are quite specific, and may be wrong in detail (for example, I remain unconvinced by the sections on humour), but the overall argument remains sound.
(One thing that has changed dramatically since the book was first published: the fact that I've finally managed to get hold of a copy of this long out-of-print work is a testament to Amazon's second-hand sales webpages.)
The Emotion Machine explains how our minds work, how they progress from simple kinds of thought to more complex forms that enable us to reflect on ourselves—what most people refer to as consciousness, or self-awareness. Unlike other broad theories of the mind, this book proceeds in a step-by-step fashion that draws on detailed and specific examples. It shows that thinking—even higher-level thinking—can be broken down into a series of specific actions. From emotional states to goals and attachments and on to consciousness and awareness of self, we can understand the process of thinking in all its intricacy. And once we understand thinking, we can build machines—artificial intelligences—that can assist with our thinking, machines that can follow the same thinking patterns that we follow and that can think as we do. These humanlike thinking machines would also be emotion machines—just as we are.
This is a brilliant book that challenges many ideas about thinking and the mind. It is as insightful and provocative as it is original, the fruit of a lifetime spent thinking about thinking.
This is a direct sequel to The Society of Mind, with some more details and explanations worked out, and the same style of diagrams. This time we get a discursive wander around possible structures of various cognitive processes, with various interjections from a range of critics.
Despite the title, there is actually very little on emotions as such. Minsky has an interesting take on them: he regards them as being a consequence of thinking, not as a causal factor in the process:
If emotions are to be thought of as a consequence of cognition, I wonder how this fits with animal emotions? Minsky says only a little about evolutionary development, but his architecture does admit increasing levels and layers of sophistication in the processing (which is one of the regions where it is more developed than in The Society of Mind). Maybe Minsky would say that animals have much simpler cognitive systems, but that their emotions are nevertheless consequences of these simpler systems?
Despite not doing exactly what it says on the tin, however, this is a fascinating read. There seems to be more structure in the underlying model this time around, not just a pandemonium of agents competing to be heard over the din. Some questions are still begged: how do certain of the Recognisers manage to do their jobs? But it certainly feels like a not implausible model of what’s going on inside our heads.