AI Milestone Series: Episode 2 - A Deeper Look at AI: The First Winter and Its Lessons

Venny Turner
3 min readJul 28


Photo by Roan Lavery on Unsplash

Artificial intelligence (AI) has seen a wild ride of ups and downs since its inception. One of the most dramatic periods in AI’s history was the first ‘AI winter’. An understanding of this period offers a valuable lens into the challenges and triumphs of developing AI. By understanding the events that have shaped AI, we can anticipate future trends and challenges.

The term ‘AI winter’ refers to periods of reduced funding and interest in AI research. The first of these ‘winters’ began in the mid-1970s and lasted until the mid-1980s. This period was marked by disillusionment with the inability of AI systems to live up to the hype and promises of early pioneers in the field. The initial optimism that AI systems would soon replicate human intelligence had led to considerable investment and research in the 1960s, but by the mid-1970s, it was becoming clear that these goals were more complex and elusive than initially thought.

The failure of several high-profile projects to deliver tangible results resulted in a withdrawal of funding, notably from the U.S. government. This lack of financial support led to a slowdown in AI research, with many researchers moving to other fields. This period of decline came to be known as the ‘AI winter’.

Despite the downturn, the first AI winter was not without its benefits. It led to a shift in focus from attempting to replicate human intelligence to developing specific applications of AI. This era saw the rise of ‘expert systems’, which were programs designed to replicate the decision-making abilities of human experts. These systems proved successful in several fields, including medical diagnosis and financial analysis.

The lessons from the first AI winter still hold value today. It taught us the importance of managing expectations and the dangers of overpromising. AI is a powerful tool, but it’s not a silver bullet that can solve all problems. Its applications need to be carefully considered and developed with a clear understanding of their potential and limitations.

Another key lesson is the importance of sustained investment and research, even in the face of setbacks. AI research is a long-term endeavor, and its benefits often take time to materialize. The first AI winter was a stark reminder of what can happen when support is withdrawn too quickly.

Lastly, the AI winter showed the importance of adaptability. When grand visions of AI didn’t pan out as expected, researchers shifted their focus to more manageable and specific applications, which ultimately proved successful and laid the foundation for future developments in AI.

In the end, the first AI winter was a critical period of recalibration and growth for the field of AI. The lessons learned from it are still relevant today, guiding current AI research and development. As we continue to push the boundaries of AI, it’s essential to remember the lessons of the past and approach AI with a sense of balanced optimism and pragmatism.

Further Reading:

  • Russell, S., & Norvig, P. (2016). Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. Pearson.
  • McCorduck, P. (2004). Machines Who Think: A Personal Inquiry into the History and Prospects of Artificial Intelligence. A K Peters/CRC Press.
  • Crevier, D. (1993). AI: The Tumultuous Search for Artificial Intelligence. Basic Books.



Venny Turner

Ever-curious problem-solver and lifelong learner. Passionate about making things easier to understand.