MIT professor Patrick Winston said stories are “a fundamental differentiating capability of us humans. And machines don’t have it yet.” Patrick Winston’s computer is learning about revenge, ambition, and murder. It knows that victory can make you happy. But it also knows you can’t be happy if you’re dead.

SwissCognitiveThe computer had to learn these things in order to read “Macbeth” — or, rather, an extremely truncated version of Shakespeare’s blood-soaked Scottish tragedy. At just 37 sentences, the rough summary reduces the Bard’s immortal poetics to such clunkers as, “Witches had visions and danced” and “Lady Macbeth has bad dreams.”

But Winston, an MIT professor, thinks this bite-size “Macbeth” could help crack the biggest problem in artificial intelligence: how to build computer systems that can simulate the human mind’s unique powers of perception and insight.

Teaching computers to understand stories, as he sees it, could help shed light on crucial components of human intelligence that scientists don’t yet understand and cannot yet replicate in machines.

“Stories seem to me to be the key to education, to social organization, to creativity, learning, consciousness, self-awareness — the whole works,” he said. “I think it’s a fundamental differentiating capability of us humans. And machines don’t have it yet.” Think you have trouble reading Shakespeare? Here’s how an MIT scientist boiled it down for a computer

Patrick Winston cautions that this short, rough summary “is meant to facilitate research, not to be a faithful rendering of the nuances of Shakespeare.” Now, as MIT makes a massive, schoolwide push for major advances in AI, Winston, 75, is hoping for a breakthrough on this problem, which has fascinated him since he was a doctoral student.

Computers can drive cars, beat people at complex games, and help doctors identify tumors by finding patterns and making predictions out of mountains of data. Some systems can even identify emotions from a person’s facial expression.

But even the most advanced artificial intelligence systems don’t know what it means to feel happy or sad. They struggle with metaphors, and they fall flat in conversations that haven’t been anticipated by their programmers.

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“When you read your 3-year-old a story, they understand it well enough to laugh or to be frightened,” said Roger Schank, a well-known artificial intelligence researcher and professor emeritus at Northwestern University. “They can tell you what the story was about, which makes them smarter than any computer that we have.”

Many in the field are skeptical about whether science has advanced far enough to even begin to develop these capacities in computers.

“It’s a very difficult problem,” said Tomaso Poggio, a longtime colleague at MIT who works at the intersection of brain research and computer science. He says major advances in neuroscience must come first. “I don’t have the courage to touch it because it’s so beyond what I think I can do right now.”

Winston knows the challenge of simulated story understanding is an order of magnitude beyond the dramatic progress he’s witnessed in artificial intelligence since the 1960s. In the 25 years he spent as director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, researchers there paved the way for innovations that were once far-off dreams, such as Apple’s Siri and the groundbreaking robots of Boston Dynamics. […]