It isn’t every day that I publicly disagree with a man who won the Turing Award and was on a first-name basis with Albert Einstein.

But today I respectfully will.

On January 24, an incredible man named Marvin Minsky died. He was one of the fathers of computer science in general and artificial intelligence in particular. I never met Mr. Minsky, but I share his passion for AI. The concept of superintelligence fascinates me. Yes, we’ve got a lot to figure out. There are so many HAL-like dangers we need to dodge. The work is really fascinating and if you want to read some really interesting work by Minsky take a look at his Society of Mind.

In eulogizing Minsky, the BBC linked to one of the last interviews this pioneer granted—a piece in the MIT Technology Review. Be sure to watch the video; I guarantee it will be four minutes and five seconds you will not regret.

The nit I’d like to pick with Mr. Minsky comes at the halfway point.

After reminiscing about the field’s exciting formative years in the 50s and 60s, when there was “a major new discovery every two to three days,” he goes on to note that growth has not kept that heady pace. He blames big business. “We have to get rid of the big companies,” he says, “and go back to giving support to individuals.”

I respectfully—very, very respectfully—disagree on the first half of his sentence.

As an inventor and engineer myself, I get it. Big business can get in the way of good science. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I joined Cisco because I felt that solving some of these very hard problems would be easiest from inside a company with both tremendous resources and a passion for innovation. Resources and passion for innovation are the key words. Three years later, my experience here proves that hypothesis right. We are using our resources and our commitment to solve some hard problems. Others are too; I am impressed by the real progress in Machine Intelligence made at the likes of Google and Facebook, Apple and even IBM.

Big companies clearly have challenges—as Marc Andreesen has pointed out, capital markets are a big issue in large company innovation. Overrotating to shareholder demands can lead to a focus on optimizing performance at the cost of innovation.. We need to fix that. But I do believe that big companies who have innovation in their DNA are part of the solution—not the problem.

While Minsky talks about brilliant individuals and big companies, he doesn’t mention start-ups and I think that’s a worthwhile omission to mention. I am equally passionate about the role of start-ups. I’ve met with the founders of many AI start-ups, and these are brilliant individuals who want to see their research applied. They are creativity with a job to do. They get it done and they are part of the solution, too.

Speaking in 1967, Minsky famously said: “Within a generation … the problem of creating artificial intelligence will substantially be solved.” Clearly, that didn’t pan out. We need to get back to the innovation cadence that Minsky reveled in—a major new discovery every two to three days.

A combination of brilliant minds, start-ups, and innovation-focused enterprises will be the key.

Cisco’s collaboration and IoT groups are really excited to play their part. We are passionate about the role machine intelligence will play in the workplace of the future. We have big ideas and big plans, and I am going to share those ideas and plans here in this blog over time. Machine intelligence will truly revolutionize the workplace over the next 24 to 48 months. It’s the next big thing to hit the enterprise and Cisco intends to play a leading role in this revolution.

I wish Marvin Minsky had lived another two years to see what we have in mind. I think it would make him proud. I hope I am right.

How do you feel about “thinking” machines in the workplace? Let me know @rowantrollope


Rowan Trollope

Senior Vice President and General Manager

IoT and Collaboration Technology Group