An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

It was quite a semester. More than 300 students showed up in my subject, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, and through various accidents of nature, I was the only faculty member involved. I wondered, “How can I supply the enrichment normally provided by recitation instructors?”

I decided to sprinkle in what I called right-now lectures. These would be given by people talking about their current research on topics I was introducing in my lectures. So, my students would get organized instruction from me plus inspiration from eight right-now speakers, each of whom is the best in the world at what s/he does. With EDx coming on fast, it occurred to me that inspiration is a big part of the value added when you take a subject taught in person.

Marvin Minsky was the final speaker in the series. I could have introduced him by enumerating all his awards, but I decided to tell a story instead:

  When I was a student, I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I majored in electrical engineering, which is what people majored in back then when they didn't know what they wanted to do. We figured we had flexibility, because everything had electrical stuff in it. Not much has changed, except that everything has computer stuff in it, so students major now in EE&CS.

I did know I wanted to understand what went on in my head, so I cast about, learning about psychology from Hans-Lucas Teuber, about neuroanatomy from Wally Nauta, about frogs' brains from Jerry Lettvin, and about communications from Irwin Jacobs.

All were terrific, but what they did was not exactly what I wanted to do. Then, one day, another student told me about a class in which the professor talked about a program that performed symbolic integration.

So, I went to one of those classes. It wasn't much like what I was used to—more a genius thinking out loud than a standard lecture. But, at the end, I had it figured out. `I want to do what he does,' I said to myself.

That was the introduction. Then, Marvin said, “We've come full circle. I want to do what you do.” That was the ultimate in positive feedback.

And Marvin was Marvin, a little rambling but a lot of inspiration. Once again, I expect there were students out there in 10-250 thinking, as I had, “I want to do what he does.”