Professor Patrick Winston dies at 76
Winston served as director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory for 25 years
Patrick Winston ’65, Ford professor of artificial intelligence and computer science, died July 19 at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston at the age of 76.
Winston received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT, before joining the EECS Department as a faculty member in 1970. For 25 years, he was the director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, before it became part of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
Additionally, he led CSAIL’s Genesis Group, “which focuses on developing an account of human intelligence with an emphasis on creating computational models of how people tell, perceive and understand stories.”
Winston was also a researcher in the Mind Machine Project (MMP), which “seeks to develop technologies for reading, writing (and virtually simulating) millions of neurons concurrently, to enable interactive exploration of both individual circuits and overall brain function.”
Winston was “a special friend to each of us,” EECS Professor Gerald Sussman ’68, who collaborated with Winston on the MMP, wrote in an email to The Tech.
“Patrick was a bit older and wiser than me: Patrick was the person I would go to for advice and mentoring. He helped me learn how to write with a punch, by giving explicit comments on pieces that I wrote. He also taught me how to pick the right fights, to avoid the useless ones, and to understand what I want to be the outcome of a meeting before I went to it. I will sorely miss him,” Sussman wrote.
Among students, he is best known for teaching 6.034 (Artificial Intelligence), a class that “introduces representations, methods, and architectures used to build applications and to account for human intelligence from a computational point of view.” Winston also taught 6.803 (The Human Intelligence Enterprise), a class in which students “analyze seminal work directed at the development of a computational understanding of human intelligence.”
His co-lecturer for 6.034, EECS Lecturer Kimberle Koile PhD ’01, wrote in an email to The Tech that she was “fortunate to know Patrick Winston as a mentor, a colleague, and a friend.”
“When you interacted with Patrick Winston you were instantly aware of his infectious passion, joy, humor — both self-effacing and sardonic — and his commanding intellect. You were also aware of his compassion and his respect for others, especially in his role as mentor and teacher: He thoroughly enjoyed not just teaching his students, but learning from them as well and was quick in giving credit to others,” Koile wrote.
Koile continued, “In co-teaching 6.034 with him for the past several years, there was no higher compliment than to overhear him tell someone that he ‘was having an out of body experience; she’s doing my lecture just like I do, only better!’ The remark was typical of him — demonstrating his self-effacing humor, quickness in complimenting a job well done, and acknowledgment that hard work and preparation pay off.”
For his teaching, Winston and earned the Baker Award, the Eta Kappa Nu Teaching Award, and the Graduate Student Council Teaching Award. He was also a MacVicar Faculty Fellow.
Alexandros Charidis ’15, a former TA for 6.034 (Artificial Intelligence) who also had Winston as part of his master’s and PhD committees, described Winston as a mentor during all his years at MIT.
6.034 is “The MIT experience,” Charidis wrote in an email to The Tech. “The class embodied everything that makes MIT such a special place to be in as a student. You would get to learn AI from a person who had an unparalleled gift as an orator and teacher, a life-long MIT citizen, and an AI pioneer who's been around since the very early classical-AI days."
Koile wrote, “I will never forget that when I was a newly minted PhD and teaching 6.034 recitations with him, he spent hours at the blackboard with me in the playroom of the old AI Lab, teaching me both the underlying principles of Support Vector Machines, but also the fundamentals of conveying those principles to students — how to organize the details, how to use the board space, how to use colored chalk at just the right time.”
Jessica Quaye ’20 wrote in an email to The Tech, “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. He was a professor that humanized students, and didn't reduce them to what they could accomplish, which is something I will forever cherish.”
Richard Yip ’17, a former TA for 6.034, wrote in an email to The Tech, “His classes were never just about artificial intelligence. He taught his students how to think, how to act, and how to lead a worthy, fulfilling life.”
Winston’s care for students and others in the MIT community and his passion for teaching is what many remember most.
Suri Bandler ’17, a former graduate student of Winston’s, as well as former head TA for 6.034 and 6.083, wrote in an email to The Tech, “He stood up for and prioritized his students — within his own class … and even to the administration. He was always so proud to be MIT, where no one cares what you look like, who you pray to, or anything, [except] that you're here to learn and give it your all.”
Quaye wrote, "Though I admired him for being an established thought leader in his field, I will always remember him as a teacher with genuine care for his students. … I cannot overstate how much of an impact he had on me, and I will miss him dearly."
Smriti Pramanick ’18 wrote in an email to The Tech, “It was a privilege to be a part of the 6.034 staff. … His commitment to teaching — from practicing each of his lectures in Stata before giving them, to meeting with students one on one to help them, to the overall 6.034 teaching and learning philosophy — has inspired me, especially as someone who wants to grow as a teacher and a learner.”
Emily Malison ’20, a former student in 6.034, illustrated an example of how much Winston cared for his students. “The semester I took 6.034 he had to get knee surgery, after unsuccessfully trying to convince his doctor that he would be fine … since he didn't want to miss any lectures. However, just three or so weeks after the surgery, Professor Winston was back lecturing in class, using a knee scooter to navigate around the lecture hall, ignoring his doctor’s orders to take the rest of the semester off,” Malison wrote in an email to The Tech.
Bandler characterized Winston as “simultaneously larger than life and extremely down to earth and approachable. If he was in, his door was open. It meant come in, or that he'd be with you the next moment he was free, no matter who you were. He learned from and taught everyone who so much as interacted with him.”
Bandler continued, “Winston was always prepared with an example, story, or prop to demonstrate his take-away. But, at the end of the day, he was the example for everything he taught. And on top of it all: a deep sense of humor, a shocking love of chocolates, and a core that is MIT through-and-through.”
Pramanick concluded, “I cannot imagine MIT without Professor Winston, but knowing the effect he has had on me and the community, his legacy will live on.”
Members of the MIT community can access MIT student support resources and Mental Health Services at resources.mit.edu/support, or via phone at 617-253-2916 during the day and at 617-253-4481 during nights and weekends.