Marvin Minsky's “The Emotion Machine”: Chapter 1 “Moods and Emotions”

Original author: Marvin Minsky
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The father of artificial intelligence is thinking about how to make a machine that would be proud of us . Marvin Minsky was a rather tough scientist and the fact that he, with his “scalpel of knowledge” explores the topic of feelings and emotions, which makes us human beings, is quite interesting and useful. The book is an excellent example of how to try to comprehend the "human" with the "IT approach": values, ideals, love, pain, common sense.

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§1-3 Moods and Emotions

“If someone tries to find the name of each of them (emotions) for which the human heart is the location, each race of people has found names for some shades of feelings, while other races have ignored some shades ... all kinds of groups possible because of the choice of the basic feeling on which all the others are based. The question is, is the effect of searching for shades of emotions the result of random grouping, or was this process best suited to specific goals? „
- William James in the Principles of Psychology (text is available only in the original work on p. 485)
Sometimes you are in a state in which the surrounding world seems cheerful and vibrant. At other times (of course, provided that nothing has changed) everything seems boring and gloomy, and your friends say that you are depressed. Why do we have such states of mind - in other words, moods, feelings, or dispositions - and what causes this strange effect? Here are some phrases that dictionaries give to define the word “emotion”:

  • Subjective experience of strong experience.
  • A state of mental arousal or anxiety.
  • Mental reaction associated with the state of the body.
  • More subjective than conscious attraction.
  • The part of consciousness that includes feelings.
  • The irrational aspect of reasoning.

If you do not yet know what emotions are, you definitely will not recognize any of these definitions. What is meant by subjective? How are emotions related to feelings? Should every emotion be associated with annoyance? And what can be behind the definition of conscious attraction?

Why do so many such questions arise when we try to determine what “emotion” means? This is because “emotion” is one of the ordinary words that covers a very wide range of things. Here are just a few of the hundreds of terms we use to discuss our mental states:

Admiration, affection, aggression, agony, anxiety, ambition, entertainment, anger, suffering, anxiety, apathy, confidence, attractiveness, disgust, reverence, bliss, courage, boredom, confidence, confusion, craving, credulity, curiosity, despondency, delight, depression, derivation, desire, hatred, disgust, despondency, distrust, doubt, etc.

Whenever your mental state changes, you use these emotional words to describe your new state, but every such word or phrase is common for too many states. Thus, many researchers spent their whole lives trying to classify the states of our mind into classes such as humor, emotions, temperaments, and moods. But should we call anguish emotion or mood? Is sadness a type of arousal? It is not possible to permit the use of these terms because, as William James noted above, different traditions make different distinctions of such states, and they cannot describe the same states of mind, because different people have different ideas about these states. How many readers can say with confidence that they know for sure

  • Sorrow for the lost child
  • Fearing that nations will never live in peace,
  • Celebrating election victories
  • Excited in anticipation of the arrival of a loved one,
  • Horrified when your car loses control at high speed,
  • Rejoicing while watching a child play,
  • Experiencing panic while in a confined space.

Although it is difficult to define words like feelings and anxieties, it is rarely a problem in everyday life to define them, because your friends usually know what they mean. Nevertheless, the attempts of psychologists to give a clear definition of these words were more hindered than helped them to create theories about how our brain works. Thus, a different approach will be used in this chapter in which one will think of the mind as a collection of small parts and processes. This will lead to some new and useful ways of imagining what feelings and thinking are.

§1-4 Nascent Emotions

“Babies suffering even from mild pain, moderate hunger or discomfort express their condition with a loud and prolonged cry. Interestingly, during the scream their eyes tightly close, so that the skin around them becomes wrinkled, and the skin of the forehead is very tense. The mouth is wide open, while the lips are curved in a peculiar way, which makes it take a square shape; gums and teeth become more or less visible. „
- Charles Darwin, in The Emotions Of Animals
In a flash, a child who looked great might begin to move limbs restlessly. Then you see a few deep breaths - and the air is filled with screams. Has the child become hungry, sleepy, or wet? Be that as it may, these screams make you look for some action that might help him. You will need some time to understand what is the cause of the trouble, but as soon as you find it a way to rectify the situation, things quickly return to normal. However, if you are not used to dealing with babies, this instant change in mood can upset you. When your friends cry, you ask them what happened - but talking to babies is pointless because he “has nobody at home” with whom to talk.

Of course, I do not assume that infants do not have a "personality." You can usually feel that soon after birth, that a particular child responds more quickly, or seems more irritable, or patient, or even more curious. Some of these symptoms may change over time, but some remain throughout a person’s life. However, we still need to ask the question: how can babies change their behavior so quickly and so much? The One-Self model cannot explain how a child can switch so quickly from contentment or calm, to anger or rage.

To make this model more believable, imagine that someone asked you to create an artificial animal. You can start by compiling a list of goals that your robot animal must achieve. He may need to find sources of food and water. He may need to defend himself against attacks, and against extreme temperatures. Perhaps he will need to have ways to attract useful friends. Then, when you compiled this list, you can tell your engineers to create this “machine driven by instincts” so that it matches each of the items on the list.


In this case, how can we build such a “machine driven by instincts”? Each such machine needs to have three types of resources: some way to recognize the current situation, some information on how to respond to them, as well as some muscles or engines to perform various actions.


And what can act as the core of this set of knowledge? Let's start with the simplest case: suppose that we already know in advance all the situations that our robot will encounter. In this case, all we need is a catalog of simple, two-stage reactions “If -> That” - where each “If” describes the selected situation, and “That” describes what action needs to be done. We will call it the “Rule-BasedReaction-Machine”.


  • If the temperature is wrong, make it normal.
  • If you need food, eat.
  • If you are in danger - choose how you will defend yourself.
  • If you are sexually attracted, look for a couple.

Many “If -> Then” rules, similar to those described above, exist in every animal. For example, each child is born with the function of maintaining body temperature: when it gets hot, he can begin to breathe deeply, sweat, move more; when it gets too cold, he can hide his limbs, or shrink, or generate heat in some other way. [Cm. §6-1.2.] Over the course of life, we learn to use actions that change the world around us.

  • If your room is too hot - open the window.
  • If it has become too sunny, lower the shadow.
  • If it gets too cold, turn on the heater.
  • If it gets too cold, put on more things.

The idea of ​​having a set of rules “If -> Then” shows that our mind is nothing more than a set of machines that respond to various reactions. Although this concept may seem oversimplified, Nicholas Tinbergen’s main book, The Study of Instinct, shows that such a presentation can be incredibly useful for describing some animal actions. He also expressed several important ideas about what actions can turn these machines on and off, how they perform various tasks, and what happens when some of these machines fail.

However, such a structure will not be able to support the complex feelings of adults and children. The rest of the book will attempt to describe systems that are more like the human mind than the system described above.

Thanks for the translation, Stanislav Sukhanitsky, who responded to my call in the "previous chapter". Who wants to help with the translation - write in a personal email or e-mail

By the way, we launched the translation of another cool book - “The Dream Machine: The History of the Computer Revolution” .

Table of Contents for The Emotion Machine
Chapter 1. Falling in Love
The Love
Of The Sea Of Mental Mysteries
Moods and Emotions
Infant Emotions

Seeing a Mind as a Cloud of Resources
Adult Emotions
Emotion Cascades
Chapter 7. Thinking.
Chapter 8. Resourcefulness.
Chapter 9. The Self.

about the author


Marvin Lee Minsky (born Marvin Lee Minsky; August 9, 1927 - January 24, 2016) is an American scientist in the field of artificial intelligence, co-founder of the Laboratory of Artificial Intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. [ Wikipedia ]

Interesting facts:

  • Minsky was friends with the critic Harold Bloom of Yale University, who spoke of him as nothing more than "the sinister Marvin of Minsky."
  • Isaac Asimov described Minsky as one of two people who are smarter than himself; the second, in his opinion, was Karl Sagan.
  • Marvin is a robot with artificial intelligence from the Douglas Adams cycle of hitchhikers in the galaxy and the movie Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (film).
  • Minsky has a contract to freeze his brain after death in order to be "resurrected" in the future.
  • In honor of Minsky, the dog is named the main character in the movie Tron: Legacy. [ Wikipedia ]

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