Professor Patrick Winston, former director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, dies at 76

July 21, 2019

“We have all heard that Patrick died yesterday in his sleep. I am writing with tears in my eyes. This is a sad day for me and also for MIT and for CBMM.

For me, Patrick and MIT have always been together. When I arrived at MIT from Germany in 1981, he was the director of the AI Lab where my office was.  In the last decade, Patrick was for me one of the most important people at MIT, somebody I always trusted and relied upon for advice and wisdom and directions. At MIT he was a legend for his directorship of the AI lab in its heydays, for his teaching and for his wonderful storytelling.

He has also been critically important to CBMM. He contributed in a unique way to the birth of CBMM by writing key parts of our original proposals and by formulating our vision and our principles. I am sure that even just his presence on our team was an important factor in getting funded. He contributed even more very early on by advising me on everything from choosing the key people to broaden my vision.

Without being flashy, Patrick was a beacon at MIT. Above all, he was a real Mensch: a friend you could rely upon beyond the usual signs of superficial friendships. He had a dry sense of humor and the ability to look at things in surprisingly novel ways. At the inauguration of the College of Computing he gave a great speech. I sent him an email afterwards saying ‘Patrick: your talks are usually very good. This one was even better. Inspiring and to the point: just great!’ to which he responded ‘Thank you Tomaso.  Sometimes I speak better than I can.’ That speech turned out to be his farewell to all of us at MIT.”

- Tomaso Poggio, Director - Center for Brains, Minds and Machines
  Massachusetts Institute of Technology


“My most vivid memory of Patrick was when he asked an audience what the most important discovery at the Cavendish Laboratory was. Of course, everyone said ‘DNA’. What was the second-most important discovery? Naturally, some people knew that the electron and neutron were discovered there, but many people didn't.

Patrick's point was that in the long view of history, an institution's impact is not measured by a simple tallying of accomplishments (even very significant ones), and he understood that if CBMM wanted to pass that test, then it would have to shrug off the mundane discoveries and set its sights on something spectacular.

He had a magical way of getting into people's heads and planting a seed with an image or story or rhetorical flourish.”

- Samuel Gershman, CBMM Investigator
  Harvard University


“I did not know him well, but well enough to take a deep liking to him almost instantaneously.”

- Winrich Freiwald, CBMM Investigator
  Rockefeller University


“Such a wonderful mentor and scholar.”

- Lizanne DeStefano, CBMM External Evaluator
  Georgia Institute of Technology


“I also have very good memories of Patrick Winston from my time in the AI lab in the early 1980's. I didn't know him well but he was very fair, friendly, and seemed (at my junior level) to be an excellent leader. It was a pleasure seeing him again when CBMM started and very sad that he has left  us so soon.

- Alan Yuille, CBMM Investigator 
  Johns Hopkins University


“Patrick was deeply generous, intellectually open, and a great champion of a broadly interdisciplinary cognitive science.  His passing is a great loss for all of us, and especially for the next generation of students in all our fields.”

- Elizabeth Spelke, CBMM Investigator
  Harvard University


"He was a wonderful head of the AI lab when I first joined the lab, and became first a mentor, then a friend. A remarkable and unique person."

- Shimon Ullman, CBMM Research Module Co-Leader
  Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Weizmann Institute of Science


"Indeed a big loss of a great scientist, a leader and above all a very good man with a great personality. I came to know Patrick during my postdoctoral period at MIT, and always found his view inspiring and enlightening. In particular, I liked his ideas about stories and their role in cognition. I guess he left us one of the greatest stories – the inspiring story of his life. My condolences for the loss of a great friend of all of you, my mentors."

- Daniel Harari,  CBMM Research Affiliate
  Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Weizmann Institute of Science


"There are amazing pioneers, and there are amazing humans and leaders. And then there was Patrick Winston. A league of his own in every aspect. MIT, CBMM, CSAIL and the whole field of AI won't be the same without him."

- Andrea Tachetti, CBMM Alumnus


"I remember first meeting Patrick at a planning meeting for the original CBMM proposal. I knew who he was, although I had difficulty getting the idea of Marvin Minsky’s first graduate student to match the man I met—such a wise head lay behind a boyish face. I liked Patrick immediately, and two things struck me. First, he listened carefully to what everyone said—and a lot was said—and then summarized essential points in a particularly effective and generous way. Second, in advocating a broader approach, he recounted that in his defense work, the military brass was always on the lookout for “war-winners,” viz., game-changing ideas that might come from unexpected people. I didn’t love the term, but the idea impressed me."

- Kenneth Blum, CBMM Research Director
  Harvard University


"When I was an engineering student in the 80s, it was Patrick's little red AI book that helped to put me on the path leading to where I am.  So, I was always happy to be given the occasional opportunity to lecture in his 'Introduction to AI' course on my work on rodent memory to acknowledge his influence.  After the lectures he would always ask, 'do you think that what you are seeing are the rats telling themselves stories?', and I would respond, 'yes, that's exactly what I think they are doing!'.  So now, although he is gone, his insights into the connections between memory, knowledge, intelligence, and story telling continue to serve as a source of inspiration to me, and he is still showing me the way.  I will miss him greatly.

Another fond memory I have of Patrick was his speech at a faculty meeting that had been called to question the administrations handling of the Star Simpson incident. At the end of his fiery oratory, in which pointed out the importance of mutual trust, support, and respect within the MIT community particularly for students, he reminded those in attendance that he was driven by the legacy of his middle name which was Henry - Patrick Henry Winston - the skilled orator that fought for those he believed in and served."

- Matt Wilson, CBMM Associate Director, Research Module Co-Leader
  Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)


"Patrick was wise, warm, and kind. He radiated integrity. One of my favorite fall traditions for the past many years was to guest lecture in Patrick's large undergrad course on artificial intelligence, taught in 10-250.  Patrick and I had both been undergrads at MIT, when we sat in those same seats. As we watched the students trickle in before class, we would marvel at our spectacular good fortune to have found ourselves, decades later,  on the other side of the stage."

- Nancy Kanwisher, CBMM Research Module Co-Leader
  Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)


"Patrick was a major intellect at CBMM. He had an uncanny ability to synthesize seemingly disparate ideas into clear, concise, didactic, and impactful statements, combined with an original and distinct way of thinking. A friendly, generous, and wise colleague, who was not shy to speak his mind, yet was always kind with his time and advice, he has left an important legacy and we will miss him."

- Gabriel Kreiman, CBMM Associate Director, Research Module Co-Leader
  Harvard University, Children’s Hospital Boston


If other CBMM-ers, past and present, would like to share their memories of Patrick here, please email them to Kris Brewer (

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