Of Mindpixels and Madness

Following a somewhat ignominious tradition started by Alan Turing*, the modern-day father of computer science and artificial intelligence (AI), 2 more prominent AI researchers committed suicide within a few months of each other as reported in this excellent article in Wired Magazine

One of the now-deceased researchers was Chris McKinstry who formed the MindPixel project, which I became interested in when I read this I, Cringely article several years ago on the subject.  The MindPixel project was a database of atomic, discrete expressions/thoughts (those would be the MindPixels**) entered by volunteers.  The thinking was that this database could then be used to build higher-order thinking in machines.  As a notable exception to the dot-com bust companies of the time, this project actually had (a) a well-defined goal and (b) an attainable business plan for reaching this goal.  Nonetheless, MindPixel failed to spark any mainstream business or technical interest or achieve appreciable success, and this may have been caused, at least in part, by McKinstry’s own sometimes eccentric and abrasive personality.

As also detailed in the Wired Article, following an eerily similar path, Push Singh was working on a similar subject matter, the Open Mind Common Sense project with many of the same goals as MindPixel.  In contrast to McKinstry, who most would agree had a somewhat unstable personality, Singh seemed to be the very picture of professional success and stability.  Yet such appearances are rarely good predictors for suicide.  And sadly, it seems that Singh’s initial depression was the result of poorly managed pain that resulted from a back injury.   

So what are we to learn from these 2 unfortunate souls driven to despair and suicide?  Are scientists who work on difficult problems more likely to commit suicide?  BBC had a documentary “Dangerous Knowledge (video here)” which looked at the lives, accomplishments, descent into insanity, and sometimes suicides of 4 prominent scientists (including Cantor who drove me a bit mad with set theory and orders of infinity).  But I don’t think highly driven people and geniuses are any more or less prone to depression or suicide than the rest of us. 

If anything is to be learned from any suicide it is to try to seek out help and treatment before attempting this “permanent solution to a temporary problem.”  Even if you are not a Turing, McKinstry, and Singh, you no doubt still have much to contribute to the world.      


* Alan Turing himself followed a tradition started by Oscar Wilde of being criminally prosecuted by the British for homosexuality and then dieing in his mid-40s.

** Google is also trying to define something similar to a MindPixel with its concept of the “knol (knowledge unit)” though these knols seem to be much higher ordered concepts (articles in fact) 

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