Prof. Winston’s Ideas

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

We went to see the Stones the other night, as we always do when they are in town. We just can’t miss seeing what Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Charlie Watts are up to.

Then, before my ears stopped ringing the next day, I saw on one of the MIT what’s-happening displays something to the effect that live lectures are dead. Maybe if it is said often enough, it will make it true.

I recalled the concert. Of course I could have listened to all those songs as I drove to work at any volume I liked. I could have popped a video into all the fancy electronic toys I keep in the media room. But I didn’t. Instead, I spent a lot of money for the welcome privilege of filling my eyes with real photons bouncing off real people, surrounded by about 18,000 other similarly minded fans.

So is the live lecture dead? Not yet, I think. We like the social act of seeing it live with others. We like having singular people in the same room, even if it is a big room.

So in our rush to MOOC everything, maybe we are asking the wrong question. We ask how can we get out stuff out to 10s of thousands or 100s of thousands of people. Instead, maybe we should ask what 100 skills, concepts, and experiences should every MIT student acquire by age 30.

Then, we can ask how we can best use established and emerging technology to deliver those skills, concepts, and experiences.*

The list would include elements every educated MIT graduate should understand at one level or another just because he or she is entitled to wear a Brass Rat. My candidates would include probability and statistics, electromagnetic wave propagation, limits to what can be computed, chemistry of one sort or another, the nature and origins of life, and what makes our species unique, all of which are readily available, but none of which are now required of every MIT student.

But alas, who is to make such a list? Perhaps I should volunteer, but then I think, in rational moments, that I should just consign the idea to the Arco Santi directory.**

* See the What’s Next with MITx for more on the subject of web-enabled educational transformation.

** The place where I put romantic ideas that I write up just for fun,


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

It was a year with a hurricane up front and a deluge at the end. I asked a lot of graduating students if the ceremony should have been moved inside. One student, a typical one, said with steel in his eye, “Are you kidding, it’s was part of the MIT experience.” I saw the point. After surviving humiliating exams, endless problem sets, projects that wouldn’t get done, and countless all nighters, a downpour on commencement just added a bit of zest.

Anyway, President Reif’s speech was not to be missed. He was cosmic, talking about the whole of life, not just the next few years.  He noted that it is a great privilege to be at MIT, not a right, and that with privilege comes the obligation to do something meaningful with the experience:

I am certain that, no matter what I say, you will take on important problems. I am certain that each of you will, in your own way, honor the great privilege we all share in being here.

And I am certain you will use what you have learned—in your labs and classrooms, in your living groups, on the playing fields, in your activities, and in late-night conversations with friends—I am certain you will use what you have learned here to make the world a better place.

Stirring words, I think. They make me want to stay up late tonight, as I generally do, trying to develop a computational account of human intelligence, which I think will eventually make the world a better place.

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No Thank You

by Patrick on February 3, 2013

in IAP, Prof. Winston's Ideas


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

I’ve been doing my “How to Speak” IAP talk in 6-120 for three decades. With 154 seats, it has been a little too small, but I was reluctant to take on one of the bigger halls, because I teach that talks given in sparsely populated venues have an unimportant feel.

This year, the Physics Department did me a favor and mysteriously booted me out of 6-120.  I landed in 10-250, the Center of the Universe, MIT’s second largest hall, with 425 seats.  I was relieved when 11 am rolled around and it was much closer to full than half full.

Anyway, I always try to add something new, so this year I buttressed my argument against concluding a talk with thank you using some video from the Republican and Democratic Conventions.

Governor Christie knows something about speaking, so it was worth noting that he had no thank you at the end of his keynote speech:

Together we will stand up once again for American greatness for our children and grandchildren.  God bless you and God bless America.

No thank you. Instead, Governor Christie used the classic call to arms ending, followed by a benediction.

What about President Clinton, who also knows something about speaking. How did he end his keynote speech?

My fellow Americans, if that is what you want, if that is what you believe, you must vote and you must re-elect President Barack Obama.God bless you and God bless America.

Again, the classic call to arms ending, followed by the same benediction.


The common thank you ending isn’t a disaster, but it is a weak move. It signals to some, perhaps many, perhaps subliminally, that the speaker lacks self confidence and feels that the audience has stuck around just to be polite.

If a talk has been good, the speaker has done the audience a favor, not the other way around.

So how do you conclude a technical talk, especially a technical talk that is part of a job application? The call to arms and benediction endings generally won’t work, but you can simply say, “With this summary of my contributions, I have concluded my talk.” Everyone will know you are finished because you will walk over and shake hands with your host, just as the conductor shakes hands with the concert master to signal that the time has come to clap.

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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.”


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

One of my students invited me to the AXO Faculty Hour, which featured good conversation and lots of chocolate.

For me, the focal point was the periodic table of chocolate-dipped strawberries, doubtlessly inspired by 3.091 or some other subject where all students are required to memorize Mendeleev’s creation. It was protected by a sign that urged us all to keep our hands off until pictures were taken and everyone had a chance to decide on a preferred element.

A colleague in Course XVI zeroed in on aluminum. “Commonly used in the aero-astro industry,” he said. “You’re Course VI, Computer Science side. Take a semiconductor.”

“Good idea,” I thought, and seized the silicon strawberry.

Where, other than at MIT, would students create a periodic table of chocolate-dipped strawberries? Where, other than MIT, would faculty covet particular chocolate-dipped strawberries?

I can’t think why I would want to be anywhere else.


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

The sky was nicely blue when I drove into Cambridge the other day. “Rayleigh scattering,” I said to myself, and remembered that this is the golden anniversary of the 8.03 quiz from hell in 1962.

I had showed up a year before, soon to be scared to death. Because I came from a high school located in a small town in Illinois, I was easily intimidated. Some of my fellow students seemed to have gone to name-brand prep schools; others went to big city schools with science tracks. For the first several weeks, they all seemed to understand everything, and I felt like I understood nothing.1

As it turned out, fear was good, because I developed good study habits and they didn’t. They hit a wall in six weeks, but I kept going.

Then, when we were sophomores, came the 8.03 quiz from hell. We all had to take four physics subjects in those days, not just the two required today.

The subject was Rayleigh scattering. I had studied hard, but still felt the quiz was difficult.

The details have faded a little, but as I remember it, when my recitation instructor handed me my graded quiz, I saw that I got 27 out of 100.

I cracked. “It has taken more than a year, but I finally have been found out.” I said to myself. “I will fail 8.03. My father will make me go back to East Peoria. I will try to get into one of the community colleges, majoring in who knows what,” I thought. “I will be a disgrace. I will never be able to marry, or have a family.” Finally, worst of all, “He will make me go to law school.”

Then, my instructor announced that the class average was 18, so I was one or two standard deviations above.2 It was just a 30 second roller coaster ride. Life was good again.

1 East Peoria Community High School was a great public school, actually, with inspiring teachers, but it took a while before I realized that.

2 The physics instructors were so mad about our performance, they gave us essentially the same quiz again, two weeks later. Some remember the class average going down. Decades later, I learned that the quiz was made up by physics professors who were not teaching the subject, so our bad performance had a good explanation.


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

It was scary, that Cuban Missile Crisis, 50 years ago. I was a sophomore at the time, and we all talked about getting vaporized, believing Boston would be a prime target. A fellow sophomore suggested we get out of town, and after thinking about the odds a while, I agreed. Several of us packed into his Volkswagen and headed north.

Hours later, we felt we were safe from the potential nuclear holocaust. We had made it all the way to New Hampshire, after all. Then, a big sign appeared in front of us:

Pease Air Force Base
Strategic Air Command

Feeling pretty stupid, we decided to go home, but on reflection, Pease Air Force Base might have been as safe as any place in the country. The Soviets would have expected that all the B52s were in the air by then.

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

I really don’t understand it. MIT is a welcoming place, with daily waves of tourists photographing the architecture and prospective students, with parents in tow, admiring the classrooms, laboratories, sports facilities, and places to live.

But when the tourists, students, and parents emerge from the MIT-Kendall subway stop, Building 76 looms in front of them, with its conspicuous sign that threatens them with prosecution if they step inside.


Lately, just a few feet away, another, less impressively executed sign has been added:

What’s the explanation of the juxtaposition? Many years ago, the scales fell from my eyes when my friend and colleague Professor Silvio Micali answered a question about why a certain government agency was behaving in a certain foolish-sounding way:

“All big organizations are stupid,” he said.

Silvio’s observation explains a lot.


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

A day or two ago, I explained the state of Artificial Intelligence to a group of high school teachers here for the 2012 edition of the MIT Science and Engineering Program for Teachers (STEP), where high school teachers learn about what’s new.

I’ve been part of the program for the past twenty years or so. I think of it as payback for the inspiration I got from my high school physics teacher, Mr. Smith, and my high school algebra teacher, Mr. Gerlach, affectionately known to us students as “Snuffy” and “Hogjaws.” I never got around to thanking them, so I thank each batch of STEP teachers instead.*

My talk was in 26-152, now a room converted to Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL), where students sit at tables and work together to absorb material and solve problems.

It occurred to me that if I stripped off the carpet, I would likely see signs of false floor, because when I showed up at MIT, 26-152 was the home of the IBM 7090, the wonder of its age.

Back then, 26-152 was like a tabernacle. Only priests, also known as operators, were allowed in. Lights blinked. Big tape drives spun. Air conditioners made noise and spewed cold air. Card readers ate card decks by the yard. Important, pioneering programs executed, including the very first AI program that performed at a human level.

Freshmen, like me, would stop at the glass doors and stare in, mesmerized.

MIT’s 7090 had two memories, one for user programs and one for the time-sharing system, both holding 32k words of 36 bits each. So, the 7090 had a little more than 256KB of memory.

I asked the teachers to pull out their iPhones. I noted that each one has more than 100,000 times more memory than the 7090.

If tuition had increased by 100,000 times, MIT would cost $140 million per year. If my laser pointer had 100,000 times more power, I could cut through a half-inch of steel.


* I have long regretted that I never sent a thank-you note to Snuffy or Hogjaws. If someone inspired you back in high school, I know it would make their day, or maybe their year, to hear from you.


Photograph courtesy of Patrica Sampson

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

These days, whenever you you walk down the Student Street in the Stata Center, you are likely to see students, sitting alone, staring at computer screens, jabbering away with friends and family in myriad foreign tongues, via Skype.

When I was a kid, my parents and I had awkward, monthly, expensive feeling, long-distance telephone calls. Now, I use Skype to work with collegues from California to Istanbul.

For me, Skype is a great enabler, far superior to telephones and email. Somehow, seeing adds a powerful social dimension.

So why not use Skype to help fix MIT’s undergraduate advising problem.

There are points of light, of course. Some departments have effective associate advisor programs; the Alumni Association offers a career-guidance service to alumni; and many FSILGs have alum-engaging mechanisms of various sorts.

Still, the advising problem has been admired, sometimes mitigated, but never fixed, for decades. Not all advisors have been in the nonacademic workforce recently; not all get to know their advisees. Many are spread too thin.

Among those who complain are seniors, soon to become young alumni. So, let’s put together a Skype-based system to create a connection between our students and on-line young alumni, thus putting the young alumni to work on the problem they have been complaining about:

Skype × Alum = Infinite Connection Advisor

By making systematic and intentional connections we might get a highly non-linear return on investment. A systematic and intentional connection is one that involves definite, mediated assignment of students to volunteer alumni, with contact proactively initiated by the alum, rather than a passive offering of a find-it-and-opt-in service.

Infinite Connection Advisors would provide career advice that complements other MIT sources. Young alums are well positioned to describe how they like working in their fields in general; to relate how they like the organizations they work for in particular; to suggest how they have made use of their MIT degrees in both obvious and nonobvious career paths; and to recommend organizations friendly to interns and attractive as long-term employers. A successful program could contribute to lifelong bonds between advisor and advisee, strengthening the alumni interpersonal network.

The idea still sounded good the day after I thought it up, so I tried it on a few people in the obvious places.

Alas, interest, but no traction. So, off to the Arcosanti file it goes, the place on my computer where I put ideas I write up just for discussion and fun.

Editor’s note: Some of the 3,000+ MIT graduates signed up as Institute Career Assistant Network (ICAN) advisors may be using Skype—it’s certainly a great idea. Alumni and students can search the Online Alumni Directory for an ICAN advisor. Interested in sharing your experience? Learn how to become an advisor.