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A belated eulogy

Ex-Winnipegger left his mysterious mark in online world

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Five years ago today, Chris McKinstry was found dead in his apartment in Antofagasta, Chile.

The once-infamous former Winnipegger committed suicide by removing a gas line from his stove and connecting it to a bag around his head. He was a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday.

I didn't know McKinstry, but I feel compelled to write a belated eulogy of sorts for a troubled guy who was both hailed as an artificial-intelligence pioneer and reviled -- by this very newspaper -- as a "digital snake-oil salesman."

I'm also hoping to right a wrong, as no mention of his 2006 passing appears in the Free Press news or obituary archives.

That in itself is remarkable, considering McKinstry committed suicide in practically the most public manner imaginable: He declared his intention to kill himself on the Internet and communicated with colleagues and foes alike on online forums before he finally followed through with his promise.

Born in Winnipeg in 1967, McKinstry grew up with an apparent knack for computer programming but also the seeds of a mental illness that would eventually lead him to try to institutionalize himself in Toronto in 1990.

The day after he was apparently refused hospital admission, he walked into a downtown Toronto gun shop, seized a shotgun and ended up in an armed standoff with police, who eventually used a teargas-lobbing robot to take him down.

After returning to Winnipeg, McKinstry started taking psychology classes at the University of Winnipeg. He also began an obsession with artificial intelligence that would last the remainder of his life.

By the mid-1990s, he hatched a plan that in retrospect appears to be the most ambitious crowd-sourcing effort ever attempted.

As Wired magazine's David Kushner explained in a fascinating 2008 profile, McKinstry believed he could create artificial intelligence not by mimicking the functions of a human brain but by amassing enough simple yes-no statements -- which are effectively bits of binary code -- to create an entity that would be indistinguishable from human consciousness.

As an amateur in a field dominated by scientists with credentials, McKinstry encountered many skeptics. He also made a lot of enemies, especially on the Internet, where he posted prolifically to online forums during the mid-1990s.

This is when I first became aware of McKinstry. On Winnipeg forums, he was ridiculed as McChimp, partly because of his atrocious command of grammar and spelling, but also because he tended to make grandiose claims.

Winnipeggers may recall one of those claims. In 1997, during the buildup toward the dot-com bubble, McKinstry announced plans to create an Internet-based soap opera called CR6 and make this city a centre of online production.

At the time, anyone who promised to do anything on the Internet -- now matter how insignificant -- received an inordinate amount of attention. McKinstry's initial CR6 press conference at the Manitoba legislature was attended by three Tory cabinet ministers. The initial story about the web series wound up on the front page of the Free Press and was even covered by CNN.

About 700 people lined up to audition for the series, which unfortunately only lasted about two months, leading McKinstry to flee the city and estimated debts in excess of $100,000.

What happened next surprised his detractors. He moved to Chile in 1998 and took a job the following year as the operator of one of the world's largest telescopes.

He also continued to pursue his obsession with artificial intelligence. In 2000, he started a collaborative AI project called Generic Artificial Consciousness and a company called Mindpixel, which would fund the effort by issuing shares in exchange for submissions of true-false statements.

In 2001, McKinstry sent an email to Free Press columnist Morley Walker, bragging "my AI project is the largest in the world." But that was the last Winnipeg ever heard of the man. Mindpixel turned out to be a failure and McKinstry began another descent into mental illness that culminated in his 2006 death.

An attention-seeking death was fitting. As Kushner writes in the Wired piece, McKinstry spent years chronicling his thoughts online and dreamed of uploading his entire consciousness to the Internet.

It's also fitting that a man desperate for recognition would finally receive it after his death. The journal Psychological Science published the results of some of his amateur research in 2008. A documentary about McKinstry's troubled life, The Man Behind The Curtain, was completed in 2010 by New York City filmmakers Michael Nichols and Joshua Woltermann.

As far as I can tell, Chris McKinstry left behind disappointed friends, ex-lovers, family and a couple of children. But the mentally ill cannot be blamed for all their actions.

After all, he wasn't the first person to suffer from the hubris of wanting to live forever.

 

Further reading and viewing

Two AI pioneers. Two bizarre suicides. What really happened? Wired magazine, Jan. 18, 2008. www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/16-02/ff_aimystery?

 

The Man Behind The Curtain Promotional site. themanbehindthecurtainfilm.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2011 A4

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