News

A Pioneer of Cognitive Science: Whitman Richards, 1932-2016 News
Whitman Richards

A Pioneer of Cognitive Science: Whitman Richards, 1932-2016

October 18, 2016 1919

This obituary draws from material, quotes and descriptions produced by MIT News and MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

***

Whitman Richards

Whitman Richards

One of the first four graduates of MIT’s Department of Psychology and a pioneer for data-intensive studies of vision and cognition, Whitman Richards died on Sept. 16 at his home in Newton, Massachusetts. He was 84.

Richards, professor emeritus of cognitive sciences and of media arts and sciences and principal investigator at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, died after battling myelofibrosis for several years.

His entire career was wrapped up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A native of Boston, he attended MIT as an undergrad and served in the Central Intelligence Agency following his graduation in 1950. After fulfilling his military requirement at the CIA, he joined his father’s engineering company before entering the nascent psychology department (later renamed. the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences).

Richards’ decision to re-enter academe followed from a meeting with the psych department’s founder, Hans-Lukas Teuber.

“In the 1960’s, with the advent of accessible computer technology, the development of information theory, and the single electrode, there was renewed excitement about prospects for modeling and understanding mind and brain,” Richards said in a 2004 interview. “Teuber’s charisma and broad vision for a new psychol­ogy was a powerful draw [to the department]. …There was a unique opportunity for a non-traditional grounding in a discipline otherwise mired in tradition.”

Richards’ early research pursued traditional psychophysical experimental methods to study the mechanisms of color perception and stereovision. But in the 1970s, his research direction and methodology shifted dramatically after meeting noted physiologist David Marr, who he eventually recruited to MIT. In Instead of relying on the traditional experimental methods that had characterized his early career, Richards, Marr, and colleagues began to look for the deep, underlying mathematical principles that allowed a human or artificial visual system to look at the world and make accurate inferences about what the system saw or perceived. That work, along with subsequent findings by his students, appeared in a 1988 book, Natural Computation.

Richards’ passionate advocacy for the computational approach to studying visual perception helped to create and nurture the department’s early computational research initiatives.

“Whit’s connection with David Marr back in the late ’70s is really the genesis of modern computational social science today,” MIT Professor Alex Pentland, the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Science and a former Richards graduate student, was quoted by MIT.

“The breadth of his research was really quite remarkable,” said Josh Tenenbaum, MIT professor of computational cognitive science and former Richards graduate student. “As his career developed, he transitioned from studying the parts of vison that are very close to neural mechanisms, to computational representations of perception, to Bayesian statistical models of perception and cognition. He became almost a computational social scientist — he was incredibly flexible in his thinking.”

He retired in 2013, having written eight books and more than 200 scientific papers. In his most recent research, he shifted to theoretical work on perception and cognition, raising fundamental questions such as “What is a percept?” and “Is perception for real?” He focused on understanding the mind, or how a brain makes decisions, with emphasis on perception as a complex system of semi-autonomous modules.

Described as a “renaissance scientist,” in an obituary in the Boston Globe, Richards was also somewhat of a renaissance man, being nationally ranked in squash into his 50s, and with his wife — Waltraud Weller Richards — building a solar-powered home there, and later, in their 70s, a two-story barn using only hand tools

Richards is survived by his wife of 54 years and three daughters.


Related Articles

Pandemic Nemesis: Illich reconsidered
News
June 14, 2024

Pandemic Nemesis: Illich reconsidered

Read Now
How ‘Dad Jokes’ Help Children Learn How To Handle Embarrassment
Insights
June 14, 2024

How ‘Dad Jokes’ Help Children Learn How To Handle Embarrassment

Read Now
Why Social Science? Because It Can Help Contribute to AI That Benefits Society
Industry
May 28, 2024

Why Social Science? Because It Can Help Contribute to AI That Benefits Society

Read Now
Digital Scholarly Records are Facing New Risks
Research
May 21, 2024

Digital Scholarly Records are Facing New Risks

Read Now
Biden Administration Releases ‘Blueprint’ For Using Social and Behavioral Science in Policy

Biden Administration Releases ‘Blueprint’ For Using Social and Behavioral Science in Policy

U.S. President Joseph Biden’s administration has laid down a marker buttressing the use of social and behavioral science in crafting policies for the federal government by releasing a 102-page Blueprint for the Use of Social and Behavioral Science to Advance Evidence-Based Policymaking.

Read Now
Survey Suggests University Researchers Feel Powerless to Take Climate Change Action

Survey Suggests University Researchers Feel Powerless to Take Climate Change Action

To feel able to contribute to climate action, researchers say they need to know what actions to take, how their institutions will support them and space in their workloads to do it.

Read Now
Three Decades of Rural Health Research and a Bumper Crop of Insights from South Africa

Three Decades of Rural Health Research and a Bumper Crop of Insights from South Africa

A longitudinal research project project covering 31 villages in rural South Africa has led to groundbreaking research in many fields, including genomics, HIV/Aids, cardiovascular conditions and stroke, cognition and aging.

Read Now
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments