Patrick Winston, a beloved professor and computer scientist at MIT, died on July 19 at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. A professor at MIT for almost 50 years, Winston was director of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory from 1972 to 1997 before it merged with the Laboratory for Computer Science to become MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). A devoted teacher and cherished colleague, Winston led CSAIL's Genesis Group, which focused on developing AI systems that have human-like intelligence, including the ability to tell, perceive, and comprehend stories. He believed that such work could help illuminate aspects of human intelligence that scientists don't yet understand. "My principal interest is in figuring out what's going on inside our heads, and I'm convinced that one of the defining features of human intelligence is that we can understand stories,'" said Winston, the Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science, in a 2011 interview for CSAIL.
What if machines could think like us -- comprehending social cues, visual prompts and spoken words just like a human would? For Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) Professor Patrick Winston, the Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science and leader of the Genesis Group at CSAIL, uncovering the true nature of human intelligence is the next grand challenge. To solve the puzzle of how humans think, Winston is employing classic engineering methodology to build systems that think and comprehend as people do using computational methods. Motivated by a desire to advance artificial intelligence and create systems that operate in a manner consistent with high-level human thinking, Winston feels there is a substantial difference between machines that actually display human-like intelligence and those that possess superb computational powers such as IBM's Watson system. For Winston, understanding what makes us different leads to questioning our uniquely symbolic nature, our ability to build descriptions using an inner language, and especially our ability to construct and tell stories, from fairy tales to case studies.
Patrick Winston's computer is learning about revenge, ambition, and murder. It knows that victory can make you happy. But it also knows you can't be happy if you're dead. The computer had to learn these things in order to read "Macbeth" -- or, rather, an extremely truncated version of Shakespeare's blood-soaked Scottish tragedy. At just 37 sentences, the rough summary reduces the Bard's immortal poetics to such clunkers as, "Witches had visions and danced" and "Lady Macbeth has bad dreams."
What is it exactly that makes humans so smart? In his seminal 1950 paper, "Computer Machinery and Intelligence," Alan Turing argued human intelligence was the result of complex symbolic reasoning. Philosopher Marvin Minsky, cofounder of the artificial intelligence lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also maintained that reasoning--the ability to think in a multiplicity of ways that are hierarchical--was what made humans human. Patrick Henry Winston begged to differ. "I think Turing and Minsky were wrong," he told me in 2017. "We forgive them because they were smart and mathematicians, but like most mathematicians, they thought reasoning is the key, not the byproduct." Winston, a professor of computer science at MIT, and a former director of its AI lab, was convinced the key to human intelligence was storytelling. "My belief is the distinguishing characteristic of humanity is this keystone ability to have descriptions with which we construct stories. I think stories are what make us different from chimpanzees and Neanderthals. And if story-understanding is really where it's at, we can't understand our intelligence until we understand that aspect of it."