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Computers with Commonsense: Artificial Intelligence at the MIT Round Table

06/06/2009 11:30 AM Kresge
Patrick Henry Winston, '65 SM'76, PhD '70, Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science;

Description: Visiting the San Diego Zoo's orangutans and chimpanzees inspires Patrick Henry Winston to ponder what makes humans different from our primate cousins. His field of artificial intelligence extends that question to thinking about how humans differ from computers. Winston's goal is to "develop a computational theory of intelligence."

Bridging the gap from people to machines requires a complex understanding of how we think. Winston asserts we think with our eyes, our hands, our mouth. Humans rely upon visual, motor, and linguistic faculties to learn and solve problems. Perceptual powers enable naming, describing, categorizing and recalling. In the aggregate, these processes are "commonsense," a hallmark of cognition that Winston aims to vest in computer programs -- to endow transistors with the nuanced capabilities of neurons.

Crucially, we also think with our stories. Throughout childhood and formal education, we are taught via fairy tales, myths, history, literature, religion, and popular entertainment. Professional disciplines like law, science, medicine, engineering, and business are conveyed through stories too.

Recognizing patterns, relationships, and mistakes, as well as abstract concepts like revenge or success, helps us explain, predict, answer questions. The delicate processes of extracting knowledge and capturing meaning may appear seamless or instinctive in the evolved mind, but must be parsed syntactically to "teach" a computer to achieve the same ends.

What might be practical applications "for systems that understood stories"? Winston suggests that decision"making in business and military strategy would benefit. And no less, comprehending cultures. If a computer program could derive clues from context, perhaps it could determine why "what plays in Peoria" doesn't translate to Baghdad.

Early efforts to build a computational theory of intelligence focused on "symbolic integrationWe figured out how to make programs do calculus by 1960but computers remained as dumb as stones," Winston says. When we progressed to building robots -- "things that move" -- language was still lacking. "We forgot that the distinguishing characteristic of human intelligence is that linguistic veneer that stands above our perceptual apparatus," he remarks.

A paradox emerging from Winston's study of how humans think is that "computers make us stupid." For instance, when students are freed from taking notes, absence of "forced engagement" with the material hinders learning. He cautions that teachers confuse the "presentation of information with the delivery of information." Too many words on a slide (or talking too fast) "jams the language processor" and impedes digesting content.

Winston summarizes with an appealing prescription for becoming smarter. "Take notesdraw picturestalk and imaginetell stories!" The very act of explaining to another elucidates a lesson for oneself.

About the Speaker(s): Patrick Henry Winston has been affiliated with MIT for five decades: from undergraduate and graduate education, to faculty appointment, to deep involvement in the life of the Institute through numerous committee memberships. In 1967, he joined the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, serving as director for 25 years, and continuing in the successor Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Winston focuses on integration of vision, language, and motor faculties to explain intelligence. His current research, the Human Intelligence Enterprise, is an interdisciplinary confluence of computer science, systems neuroscience, cognitive science, and linguistics. He also pursues an interest in the intriguing field of "computational politics," uniting computer scientists and social scientists toward an enlightened understanding of thinking in many cultures.

Beyond academia, Winston cofounded Ascent Technology, Inc., a company that develops A.I. applications in resource planning and scheduling for airports and the Department of Defense. He is in his third term on the Naval Research Advisory Committee, for which he studied how to utilize technological advances for an all"electric Navy. This work was recognized with a Meritorious Public Service Award.

Winston is past president of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence. He has written or edited 17 books, including texts on programming languages and artificial intelligence, as well as anthologies of A.I. research.

Host(s): Alumni Association, Alumni Association

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