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A Pioneer of Artificial Intelligence

Lawrence Bush
July 24, 2017

Ray Solomonoff, a pioneer of artificial intelligence who developed the concept of algorithmic possibility, was born in Cleveland on this date in 1926. Solomonoff’s work anticipated the “singularity,” the point at which computers achieve greater intelligence than human beings, and developed “theoretical foundations of learning systems, focused on understanding how to generate and assign probabilities to sequences of symbols, which could be mapped to the challenge of predicting what comes next, given what you’ve seen so far,” according to Eric Horvitz, former president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. Closely associated with the 1956 Dartmouth Summer Research Conference on Artificial Intelligence -- a group of ten mathematicians -- Solomonoff was one of three who worked together all summer to develop methods of improving machine intelligence. His research was described by John Markoff in the New York Times as responding to the question: “Given a long sequence of symbols describing real-world events, how can you extrapolate the sequence?” Solomonoff was fiercely independent and creative as a mathematician and steered clear of most academic posts, instead forming his own one-man company, Oxbridge Research, in 1970. He died at 83 in 2009.

“Ray championed probability in AI during the decades it was unpopular and lived to see a renaissance in systems that learn and reason using probability. The story of his life is the story of a great adventure.” --Grace Solomonoff (his wife)

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.