Patrick Henry Winston, our friend, colleague, teacher, and mentor, lives on forever in us.
In Memoriam: Patrick Henry Winston,
Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science
Oct 16, 2019
Presented by Randall Davis,
Professor of Computer Science and Engineering
It is with profound sadness that we record here a memorial resolution marking the passing of Professor Patrick Henry Winston, a dedicated educator, a pioneering researcher, and a cherished colleague and friend. Patrick passed away on July 19, 2019, at the age of 76.
Patrick was an MIT lifer in the best sense of that term. Born in Peoria, Illinois, in 1943, he came to MIT as an undergraduate in 1961 and never left. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1965, a master’s in EE in 1967, and a PhD in computer science in 1970.
He served on the MIT faculty for nearly 50 years, and for fully half that time – 25 years – he was director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which later merged with the Laboratory for Computer Science to create the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He led CSAIL’s Genesis Group, which has been, and continues to focus on developing AI systems with human-like intelligence. He was convinced that the ability to understand and to tell stories lies at the core of human intelligence. This was a long-time focus for Patrick’s work, dating back in some ways to his thesis work with Marvin Minsky. He was passionate on the subject and believed that it would help both in endowing software with a more human-like intelligence, and illuminating aspects of human intelligence that still mystify us.
It’s impossible to overstate Patrick’s educational impact. Legions of students took his Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course; in his 50 years of teaching perhaps 10,000. Ten thousand students. Remarkable. He also taught a course entitled the Human Intelligence Enterprise where the focus was on developing both an analytical mind and the ability to communicate clearly. He long held that great ideas weren’t enough – you had to know how to convey them.
He was well-known for his informative and accessible lectures, during which he could move quickly from the details of an algorithm to the larger issues that it illustrated, then onto even bigger lessons about being a scientist – and a human being.
He was also, sad to say, a fraud. He stood at the front of 10-250, casually delivering his lecture as if he had just dropped by to tell an off-the-cuff story. That’s the fraud – those who knew him knew that he got to MIT at 6 a.m. so he could practice every lecture before class, making sure that every detail was right, down to the placement of every stroke of the chalk. And he did that for his entire career, no matter how familiar the material was to him. The important thing was to make it make sense to the students.
He was also renowned for his wildly popular IAP talk, “How to Speak,” in which he shared years of accumulated wisdom, tips, and tools for effective speaking.
Since Patrick’s passing, many of his students have shared fond memories of him as a superb educator and an inspiring, personable mentor. In a blog post on the MIT Admissions site, one recent graduate wrote: “Each lecture he taught enriched me technically and shaped me into a better member of my community. In both 6.034 and 6.803, he would either start the class with an interesting short story and accompanying life lesson, or end it with advice he had picked up from the author of the paper we read.” Another posted this on Facebook: “Professor Winston was a brilliant, wise, and kind professor. Not only did he inspire me to go into AI from his incredible courses, but he took the time to act as an early mentor for me.” And a third former student told this story on a memorial website created by Patrick’s students and colleagues: “In November 2018, I was trying to make a robot demo in which Professor Winston's Genesis Problem Solver played an important role. To implement one feature, I needed to modify his system a little. So I emailed him from Singapore to ask how. At a little past 11 p.m. that day (his 11 a.m. in Boston), I received his Skype call. After understanding the situation, he issued two instructions: 1. Go home now and go to sleep. 2. Check in the morning and see if the feature works. It worked in the morning.”
Based on those stories, and many others like them, it’s easy to see why Patrick earned many honors for teaching over the years, including a MacVicar Faculty Fellowship, the Baker Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the Eta Kappa Nu Teaching Award, and the Graduate Student Council Teaching Award.
Patrick also received a Meritorious Public Service Award and a Distinguished Public Service Award for his service as a member of the Naval Research Advisory Committee. This independent civilian group advised top-level Navy officials on matters involving science, research, and development. Patrick, who also chaired the committee for three years, led major studies on major topics such as computer resources, software-intensive systems, and others.
He was also a member of Massport’s Security Advisory Committee and the Defense Intelligence Agency Advisory Board, and a past president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.
He took seriously the notion of public service, inspired perhaps by a famous ancestor of his, that other Patrick Henry of some reknown.
He published numerous papers and wrote or edited a variety of books, including one of the first and most influential early AI textbooks. His Introduction to AI lectures live on in OCW, where they are routinely viewed from around the world. He also co-founded Ascent Technology, which produces scheduling and workforce management applications that are in use in a variety of venues, including major airports.
Beyond Patrick’s brilliance as a computer scientist, it is his emphasis on humanity that many of us will remember most. Last February, speaking at a celebration event for the new MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, Patrick reminded the audience about the greatest computing innovation of all time: “It’s us,” he said, “because nothing can think like we can.” And many students recall that on the final day of 6.034, he typically closed with the class with a slide bearing this powerful advice: “You can do it. Only you can do it. You can’t do it alone. You won’t be alone if you take care of your people.”
Patrick always took care of his people.
For all those reasons, and in recognition of how much Patrick contributed to MIT both personally and professionally: Be it resolved that the Faculty of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at its meeting of October 16, 2019, records its deep sense of loss on the death of our beloved colleague, Patrick Henry Winston, and expresses its deepest sympathy to Patrick’s wife, Karen Prendergast, and his daughter, Sarah. We also extend our sincere condolences to Patrick’s other family members, friends, colleagues, and the students whose lives he influenced in so many ways.