AI, Education Technology Pioneer Seymour Papert Dies at 88

(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

Seymour Papert, a pioneer of constructionist learning and AI pioneer, died this weekend at the age of 88.

Papert saw the potential for education in new technologies as far back as the late 1960’s. At a time when computers were the size of a room and were still seen as an expensive luxury available only to the rich or to massive institutions, he saw in them an empowering tool for young learners.

Papert’s wife, Suzanne Massie, an author and Russian scholar, told WBUR radio in an interview that:

“His dream was that the two billion people in the world with no education got an education.”

At this time, Papert came up with the idea for Logo, a programming language for kids, with which they could program the movements of a small virtual turtle. The program was in line with his “constructionist” theory of education, which holds that people learn best when they are actively creating or building something in the world.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif has spoken glowingly of Seymour Papert’s contributions to various fields:

“With a mind of extraordinary range and creativity, Seymour Papert helped revolutionize at least three fields, from the study of how children make sense of the world, to the development of artificial intelligence, to the rich intersection of technology and learning”.

He followed by saying, “We hope to build on his ideas to open doors to learners of all ages, around the world.”

According to MIT News, Papert lived a prolific academic life that took him across several continents. He was born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1928, earning a BA in philosophy in 1949, followed by a PhD in mathematics three years later. He was a prominent anti-apartheid activist during his university years.

Following this, Papert traveled overseas to continue his studies, and from 1954 to 1958 he earned his second PhD at Cambridge University as he focused on math research. His next move proved crucial in his later pursuits; he went on to the University of Geneva, where he worked with Swiss philosopher and psychologist Jean Piaget, whose theories about how children make sense of the world proved to be very influential on his own views of children and learning.

From Switzerland, Papert then travelled to the US, where he joined MIT as a research associate in 1963. Four years later he became a professor of applied mathematics, and shortly after was appointed co-director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab, which later transformed into CSAIL, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Together with CSAIL’s founding member, Professor Marvin Minsky, Papert wrote the 1969 book, “Perceptrons,” a work seen as a turning point in the field of artificial intelligence.

In 1985, Papert and Minsky were joined by former MIT President Jerome Wiesner and MIT Professor Nicholas Negroponte to become founding faculty members of the MIT Media Lab. Here, Papert was leader of the Epistemology and Learning research group.

Negroponte has spoken of Papert’s inimitable character, and playful use of language, saying that:

“Seymour often talked poetically, sometimes in riddles, like his famed phrase, ‘you cannot think about thinking without thinking about thinking about something.’”

An indicator of Papert’s far reaching influence in the field of technology and learning, The New York Times reports, is the fact that the computer science pioneer Alan Kay sketched out a prototype for the laptop computer after a visit to Dr. Papert at MIT.

Papert is survived by his wife, Suzanne Massie, with whom he collaborated on many projects, including the Learning Barn; his daughter, Artemis Papert; three stepchildren, Robert Massie IV, Susanna Massie Thomas, and Elizabeth Massie; and two siblings, Alan Papert and Joan Papert. He also had previous marriages with Dona Strauss, Androula Christofides Henriques, and Sherry Turkle.

The MIT Media Lab has announced that it will host a celebration of the life and work of Seymour Papert in the coming months.