Edward Fredkin, who, despite never graduating from college, became an influential computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pioneer of artificial intelligence and a maverick theorist who championed the idea that the entire universe could function as one big computer, died June 13 in Brookline, Mass. He was 88.
His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his son Richard.
Fueled by a seemingly boundless scientific imagination and a cheerful indifference to conventional thinking, Professor Fredkin hurtled through an endlessly mutating career that could seem as mind-blowing as the iconoclastic theories that made him a force in both computer science and physics.
“Ed Fredkin had more ideas in a day than most people in a month,” Gerald Sussman, a professor of electronic engineering and longtime colleague at MIT, said in a telephone interview. “Most of them were bad, and he would have agreed with me. But good ideas also came out of it. So he had more good ideas in his lifetime than most people ever had.
After serving as a fighter pilot in the Air Force in the early 1950s, Professor Fredkin became a renowned, if unconventional, scientific thinker. He was a close friend and intellectual sparring partner of celebrated physicist Richard Feynman and computer scientist Marvin Minsky, a pioneer of artificial intelligence.
Self-taught, he left university after a year, but at the age of 34 he became a professor of computer science at MIT. He later taught at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and at Boston University.
Not content to confine his energies to the ivory tower, Professor Fredkin founded a company in 1962 that built programmable film readers that allowed computers to analyze data captured by cameras, such as Air Force radar information.
That company, Information International Incorporated, went public in 1968 and made him a fortune. With his newfound wealth, he bought a Caribbean island in the British Virgin Islands, which he traveled to in his Cessna 206 seaplane. The island had no drinking water, so Professor Fredkin developed a reverse osmosis technology to desalinate seawater, which he turned into another company.
He eventually sold the property, Mosquito Island, to British billionaire Richard Branson for $25 million.
Professor Fredkin’s life was filled with paradoxes, so it was only fitting that he be credited with his own. The so-called Fredkin paradox states that when one has to choose between two options, the more similar they are, the more time one spends brooding over the decision, even if the difference between choosing one or the other is insignificant. Conversely, when the difference is greater or more meaningful, people are likely to spend less time making decisions.
As an early researcher in the field of artificial intelligence half a century ago, Professor Fredkin foreshadowed the current debates about hyperintelligent machines.
“It takes a combination of engineering and science, and we already have the engineering,” Fredkin said in a 1977 interview with The New York Times. “To make a machine that thinks better than humans, we don’t need to understand everything about humans. We still don’t understand feathers, but we can fly.”
As a starting point, he helped pave the way for machines to checkmate the Bobby Fischers of the world. Professor Fredkin, a developer of an early chess processing system, created the Fredkin Prize in 1980, a $100,000 prize that he awarded to whoever could develop the first computer program to win the World Chess Championship.
In 1997, a team of IBM programmers did just that, taking home the six-figure bounty when their computer, Deep Blue, beat World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov.
“I never doubted that a computer would eventually beat a reigning world chess champion,” Professor Fredkin said at the time. “The question has always been when.”
Edward Fredkin was born on October 2, 1934, in Los Angeles, the youngest of four children of immigrants from Russia. His father, Manuel Fredkin, ran a chain of radio stores that went bankrupt during the Great Depression. His mother, Rose (Spiegel) Fredkin, was a pianist.
As a youth he was cerebral and socially awkward, but Edward avoided sports and school dances, preferring to indulge in hobbies such as building rockets, designing fireworks and dismantling and rebuilding old alarm clocks. “I was always good with machines,” he told The Atlantic Monthly in 1988.
After high school, he enrolled at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where he studied with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling. Lured by his desire to fly, however, he left school in his sophomore year to join the Air Force.
During the Korean War, he trained to fly fighter jets. But his prodigious skills with math and technology led him to work on military computer systems rather than in combat. To further his training in computer science, the Air Force eventually sent him to the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a source of technological innovation funded by the Pentagon.
It was the beginning of a long stint at MIT, where in the 1960s he helped develop early versions of multi-access computers as part of a Pentagon-funded program called Project MAC. The program also examined machine-assisted cognition, an early study of artificial intelligence.
“He was one of the world’s first computer programmers,” Professor Sussman said.
Professor Fredkin was chosen to lead the project in 1971 and became a full-time member of the faculty soon after.
As his career developed, he continued to challenge mainstream scientific thinking. He made great strides in reversible computing, an esoteric field that combines computer science and thermodynamics.
With a few innovations – the billiard ball computer model, which he developed together with Tommaso Toffoli, and the Fredkin Gate – he showed that calculations are not inherently irreversible. That progress suggests that calculations need not consume energy by overwriting the intermediate results of a calculation, and that it is theoretically possible to build a computer that does not consume energy or produce heat.
But none of his insights caused more discussion than his famous theories of digital physics, a niche area in which he became a leading theorist.
His theory of the universe as one giant computer, as described by the author and science writer Robert Wright in The Atlantic Monthly in 1988, is based on the idea that “information is more fundamental than matter and energy.” Professor Fredkin, said Mr. Wright, believed that “atoms, electrons, and quarks are ultimately made up of bits—binary units of information, like those that are the computing unit in a personal computer or pocket calculator.”
As Professor Fredkin said in that article, DNA, the fundamental building block of heredity, is “a good example of digitally encoded information”.
“The information that indicates what a creature or plant will be is encoded,” he said. “It has its representation in the DNA, right? OK, now there’s a process that takes that information and transforms it into the creature.
Even a creature as ordinary as a mouse, he concluded, “is a big, complicated informational 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; a son, Michael, and two daughters, Sally and Susan, from his first marriage; a brother, Norman; a sister, Joan Entz; six grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
Towards the end of his life, Professor Fredkin’s theory of the universe remained marginal, if intriguing. “Most physicists don’t think it’s true,” Professor Sussman said. “I’m also not sure Fredkin believed it to be true. But there is certainly a lot to learn by thinking that way.”
His early views on artificial intelligence, on the other hand, seem to be getting more prescient by the day.
“In the distant future we will not know what computers do, or why,” he told The Times in 1977. of all the people who have ever lived on this planet.”
Yet, unlike many current doomsayers, he felt no sense of existential dread. “Once there are clearly intelligent machines,” he said, “they won’t be interested in stealing our toys or dominating us any more than they would be interested in dominating chimpanzees or taking nuts.” of squirrels.”