“Are computer viruses alive?
“Do machines have rights?
“Can AI be created in a lab or a shop?
“University of Memphis professor Dr. Stan Franklin explores concepts that make the average person’s head spin.”
These provocative phrases appear at the beginning of a 1995 profile of Dr. Stan Franklin in The Commercial Appeal. In the decades since, the ideas they express have remained just as appealing to Franklin, a true genius, according to colleagues, who has devoted his life to navigating, charting, and discerning mind-blowing new concepts in mathematics and computer science.
And he did so from a base of operations at one of the undiscovered bastions of significant research in the nation, the Institute for Intelligent Systems, which he co-founded, at the University of Memphis.
“He was a pioneer in artificial intelligence,” said psychology professor Dr. Art Graesser, 72, who turned down a high-paying job with IBM to come to Memphis in 1985 to work with Franklin.
Graesser was referring to a field of study – Artificial Intelligence, or AI – that may be the hottest in science, at least in this corner of the multiverse (to allude to another hot concept). “Stan’s models tried to simulate how the human mind works, psychologically,” Graesser said. “Imagine a computer that could have consciousness.”
Franklin — who envisioned this, and more — died Monday at his East Memphis home, after a series of recent health dilemmas. He was 91 years old.
In newspaper obituary parlance, Franklin leaves behind eight children.
He also leaves a new subfield of mathematics, “sequential spaces”, introduced in his 1965 paper “Spaces for which Sequences Suffice”; various AI-related software implementations used by, among others, the United States Navy; a computer literacy program at FedEx that was one of the first of its kind in the nation; the landmark 1995 MIT Press book, “Artificial Minds,” which at the time was the definitive guide to a booming industry; nearly $100 million in grants, which he and his colleagues at the Institute have attracted to the university; and, of course, the Institute for Intelligent Systems itself, founded in 1987 as an interdisciplinary research center bringing together mathematicians, computer engineers, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists, and others in the pursuit of “cognitive science” (the study of the mind and its processes) .
Franklin even has an entry in the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, crediting him with developing ways to shape human and animal thought with computers; and is on display in the new interactive exhibit at the Pink Palace/Museum of Science & History, “Artificial Intelligence: Your Mind & the Machine,” which is open through May 6. The show calls him an “AI Innovator” and describes him as a “mentor” to “future generations of cognitive scientists”.
A lifelong Memphian and “proud” (according to his daughter, Sunny Franklin), Stanley Phillip Franklin spent much of his childhood working at Franklin’s Gilt Edge Department Store, a corner store of Hollywood and Chelsea owned by his parents, Sam and Lily Franklin. He attended Christian Brothers High School and the University of Memphis, then earned a PhD in mathematics. at UCLA, where he majored in topology, a field of mathematics involving geometric objects and spatial relationships. He also served in the Marines as an air navigator during the Korean War.
He has taught or conducted research at the University of Florida, Tulane University, Carnegie Mellon University, the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, the National Research Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science in Amsterdam, and The Technion — The Israel Institute of Technology of Haifa. But he spent most of his career in Memphis, returning to his hometown alma mater in 1972 to be chair of the math department, which he transformed primarily from a teaching to a research department.
Franklin’s reputation attracted other mathematicians to Memphis, especially after the Institute was founded and then the publication of his book, which according to Graesser was “20 years ahead of its time. It explained very clearly what artificial intelligence was all about.” .
At the time, artificial intelligence was a generally unknown concept to much of the public, except in connection with science fiction robots and sinister machines, such as the HAL 9000 computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. But what once seemed limited to a Stanley Kubrick spaceship orbiting Jupiter is now in your pocket, with AI technologies and programs like ChatGPT operating on cellphones. Franklin’s book conceptualized some of the ideas that led to these advances, such as computer “neural networks.”
In an interview with The Commercial Appeal, Franklin said he was developing “a new way of thinking about minds” by delving into such age-old questions as “How does intelligence come about? How does mental function arise from the physical?” She said her work has had “ramifications for humans, for animals, for autonomous robots, for artificial life that lives in a computer, for software agents that run on the Internet…”
But also, she said, her job was fun. “It’s like exploring space. There is no end…”
Until recently, Franklin was in remarkably good health, especially for a 90-year-old, according to family members. For years beyond his official retirement, he remained active as a professor emeritus at the U of M. He was a lover of the outdoors and practiced tai chi.
Franklin is survived by his wife, Jeannie Stonebrook; three sons, Bruce Franklin of Los Angeles, Phillip Franklin of Overland Park, Kansas, and Sam Franklin of Memphis; and five daughters, Elena Franklin Berman of Mountain View, California, and Lynn Franklin, Michele Safa, Hallie Franklin, and Sunny Franklin, all of Memphis; a brother, Jerome Franklin of Memphis; (Incidentally, Franklin’s youngest children Sunny and Sam, 35, are twins; and some of the children are splinters from the old Hilbert cube: Safa is an anthropology professor at the University of M, while Berman is the director scientist at Kairos Aerospace.)
Services are at Baron Hirsch Cemetery at 10am on Friday 27 January. Canale’s funeral directors are in charge.
The family requests that any donations be made to the Wolf River Conservancy.