Joseph Weizenbaum and his famous Eliza

Joseph Weizenbaum (1923-2008)
photo: Ulrich Hansen

On January 8, 1923, computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum, a pioneer in natural language processing and artificial intelligence, who later became one of artificial intelligence’s leading critics, was born. In 1966 he published a simple program named Eliza, which involved its users in a conversation that bore a striking resemblance to one with a psychologist.

Joseph Weizenbaum was born in Berlin to Jewish parents on January 8, 1923. He was able to escape Nazi Germany in January 1936, emigrating with his family to the United States, where he started studying mathematics at the Wayne State University in Detroit in 1941. However, his studies were interrupted by the war, during which he served in the military at the meteorological service of the Air Force. In 1946 Weizenbaum returned to earn his M.S. in Mathematics in 1950. Around 1952 he worked on analog computers, and helped create a digital computer for Wayne State University. He joined a General Electric Co. team in 1955 that designed and built the first computer system dedicated to banking operations. In 1956 he worked for General Electric on ERMA, a computer system that introduced the use of the magnetically encoded fonts imprinted on the bottom border of checks, allowing automated check processing via Magnetic Ink Character Recognition (MICR).In 1964 he took a position at MIT as an associate professor and in 1970 he became Full professor of computer science.

It was at MIT in 1966, when he published the Eliza program. As a computer scientist you simply have to know Eliza. I stumbled accross this unique piece of software in the late 1980s and – believe it or not – people really talked with this computer program as if it was a real person. However, Joseph Weizenbaum wrote a simple program that was able to pose a few standard questions in the way a psychiatrist does and included some templates and patterns used to reflect the answers of the user in a simple way. Weizenbaum adopted the use of open-ended questions that is used to encourage patients to communicate more effectively with therapists. Thereby, Eliza was able to mock a real conversation and no wonder that its creator named it Eliza after the ingenue in George Bernard Shaw‘s play Pygmalion.

Actually, Weizenbaum was shocked, when he realized, how people reacted to Eliza, opening up their deepest inner thoughts to a (stupid) machine. The experience prompted him to think philosophically about the implications of artificial intelligence and, later, to become a critic of it. In his 1976 book “Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation,” Weizenbaum suggested it could be both dangerous and immoral to assume computers could eventually take over any roll, given enough processing power and the right programming. “No other organism, and certainly no computer, can be made to confront genuine human problems in human terms,” he wrote. According to Weizenbaum, there is a crucial distinction between deciding and choosing. Deciding is a computational activity, something that can ultimately be programmed. Choice, however, is the product of judgment, not calculation. It is the capacity to choose that ultimately makes us human. Comprehensive human judgment is able to include non-mathematical factors, such as emotions.

In 1996, Weizenbaum moved back to Berlin and lived in the vicinity of his childhood neighborhood. Besides his work at MIT, he held academic appointments at many schools, including Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of Bremen, among others. Berlin’s Humboldt University awarded him an honorary doctorate on his 80th birthday in 2003. Joseph Weizenbaum passed away on March 5, 2008, at age 85.
At yovisto you can learn more about Joseph Weizenbaum in the documentary ‘Joseph Weizenbaum – Rebell at Work‘.

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