Music Production

The Minsky Tapes

June 27, 2018

Here’s how Marvin Minsky found his way into the PlayStation game Detroit: Become Human via Abbey Road Studios.

Marvin Minsky was the godfather of Artificial Intelligence. One of the modern world’s great thinkers, Marvin had a profound effect on the future of science, as well as the popular consciousness. He designed the concept of  HAL for Kubrick in 2001 A Space Odyssey, and taught Arthur C Clarke and Richard Feynman.

Marvin was a friend of mine – a great raconteur, dinner party companion and fellow musician. I had met him through his friend and student, my friend Michael Hawley – the polymath and amazing impresario behind the EG conference.

After Minsky passed away, his daughter, Margaret Minsky, shared Marvin’s musical archives with me. It’s maybe not a widely known fact that Marvin was a fantastic composer and pianist. (I honestly think there was nothing he couldn’t do).

He had composed many short piano pieces directly onto reel-to-reel tape, hand splicing them with a razor blades and tape, recording them at different speeds to create pitch effects. It was a real treasure trove.

One of Marvin’s pieces sounded so beautiful, I decided to write a musical frame for it – a sort of concerto accompaniment around his recording.

I took Marvin’s tape into Abbey Road Studio 1, and recorded the musicians of the English Session Orchestra around it using the Beatles’ microphones – I mean – why not?!

Gloria Minsky and Philip Sheppard at EG 2018

Gloria Minsky and Philip Sheppard at EG 2018

Over the last year, I had been working on a soundtrack for the game Detroit: Become Human – a PlayStation title developed by Quantic Dream, itself a deep mediation on Artificial Intelligence and the sentience of Machines – entirely Marvin Minsky’s realm of expertise.

Here’s the director of Detroit, David Cage to explain the coda to this story in his own words;

You never know where ideas come from. Sometimes it is something you heard or read years ago. It is there, somewhere in your brain, but you don’t know it… until it comes to the surface. When I was looking for a name for the inventor of the androids, the name “Kamski” came very naturally. It sounded like a very good name for a genius working on AI and creating a technological revolution. It is only years later during the development of Detroit, when composer Philip Sheppard evoked Marvin Minsky, that I made the connection.

Who other than Marvin Minsky could be the inspiration for a precursor and absolute genius of AI? He worked on the first prototype of virtual reality (in 1963!), worked on artificial neural networks, theorized the concept of self-replicating AI, and was even the consultant on one of my favorite movies (Kubrick’s 2001).

What I absolutely didn’t know about Minsky is that he was also a fantastic composer and piano player. When Philip mentioned this to me, we felt it would be a great opportunity to pay a tribute to Minsky by adding his music to the game. So we recorded one of his beautiful soundtracks, orchestrated by Philip and recorded at Abbey Road studios, and we used it in one of the most dramatic scenes in the game.

Minsky would have probably enjoyed having his music in an interactive experience talking about androids and AI, and how machines could become a new form of intelligent life. It was also a way for us to pay homage to one of the most brilliant minds of our time. I would like to thank Philip and Minsky’s family for this amazing opportunity.

Footnote… I’m lucky not only to have been friends with Marvin Minsky, but also with many of Silicon Valley’s most exploratory thinkers. My friend Tom Gruber was one of the inventors of Siri, and he’s a great believer in the power of AI to augment rather than replace human work and play. Here’s a rather lovely, optimistic talk on the augmentation of Human intelligence:

Marvin Minsky at the piano

Marvin Minsky at the piano


3 comments on “The Minsky Tapes

  1. A fan on

    The Minsky Tapes – Philip: Once again, this inspired chills – and also tears. You have completed a thought that Marvin started. You are a gift. Thank you.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.