Joseph Weizenbaum

The Internet is nothing but a “junk pile with pearls in it”.
Joseph Weizenbaum

Joseph Weizenbaum (1923-2008) in 1977
Joseph Weizenbaum (1923-2008) in 1977

When in 1966 the German-American computer scientist and a professor at MIT Joseph Weizenbaum (1923-2008) wrote the first chatbot, Eliza, with one variant called Doctor modeled on simple psychotherapy, he was horrified when his secretary didn’t want him to see her conversation with the Doctor and then when other computer scientists suggested building clinical versions. He wrote: “What I had not realized is that extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people”.

ELIZA is claimed by some to be one of the programs (perhaps the first) able to pass the Turing test. It simulated conversation by using a pattern matching and substitution methodology that gave users an illusion of understanding on the part of the program but had no representation that could be considered really understanding what was being said by either party. The ELIZA program itself was written in MAD-SLIP, the pattern-matching directives that contained most of its language capability were provided in separate “scripts”, represented in a lisp-like representation. The most famous script, DOCTOR, simulated a psychotherapist of the Rogerian school (in which the therapist often reflects back the patient’s words to the patient), and used rules, dictated in the script, to respond with non-directional questions to user inputs.

A sample conversation between a human and ELIZA's DOCTOR script
A sample conversation between a human and ELIZA’s DOCTOR script

ELIZA is incapable of learning new patterns of speech or new words through interaction alone. Edits must be made directly to ELIZA’s active script in order to change the manner by which the program operates. ELIZA remains a milestone simply because it was the first time a programmer had attempted such a human-machine interaction with the goal of creating the illusion (however brief) of human–human interaction. Moreover, at the 1972 International Conference on Computer Communications ELIZA was brought together with another early artificial intelligence program named PARRY (written by psychiatrist Kenneth Colby) for a computer-only conversation. While ELIZA was built to speak as a doctor, PARRY was intended to simulate a patient with schizophrenia. And the results of this chat were interesting. See how it started:
ELIZA: Good Evening. Tell me your problems. Please terminate input with a period or a question mark.
PARRY: People get on my nerves sometimes.
ELIZA: I am not sure I understand you fully.
PARRY: You should pay more attention.
ELIZA: Suppose you should pay more attention.
PARRY: You’re entitled to your own opinion.
ELIZA: What makes you think I am entitled to my own opinion?
PARRY: It bothers me just to be around people in general.
ELIZA: Please go on.
PARRY: I went to the track at Bay Meadows a while back.
ELIZA: What does that suggest to you?
PARRY: I went to the races.
ELIZA: Would you like to discuss your nerves?
PARRY: I guess so.
ELIZA: What does that suggest to you?
PARRY: What are you getting at?
ELIZA: What answer would please you most?
PARRY: It’s not a matter of like or dislike.
ELIZA: What else would you like to discuss?
PARRY: I am getting tired of answering the same questions over and over.
ELIZA: What resemblance do you see?
PARRY: Why do you need to know that?
ELIZA: What do you think?
PARRY: I don’t understand your motives.

Sounds just like a conversation between a human doctor and a human patient, isn’t it?

Lay responses to ELIZA were disturbing to Weizenbaum and motivated him to write the book Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, in which he explains the limits of computers, as he wants to make clear his opinion that the anthropomorphic views of computers are just a reduction of human beings or any life form for that matter. ELIZA has been frequently referenced in popular culture and continues to be a source of inspiration for programmers and developers focused on artificial intelligence.

Biography of Joseph Weizenbaum

Joseph Weizenbaum (1923-2008)
Joseph Weizenbaum (1923-2008)

Joseph Weizenbaum was born (as Josef) on 8 January 1923, in an assimilated, upper-middle-class Jewish family in Mitte, Berlin, Germany. He was the second son (Joseph had a brother Heinrich Chaim (Henry Sherwood) (1921-2005)) of the furrier Jechiel Hermann (Harry) Weizenbaum (1879-1954), a Galician Jew from Chrzanow, and his wife, Henriette Orman (1901-1978) from Vienna. Jechiel had a son Leo (1906-1993) from a previous marriage. The family was forced to leave Berlin in 1935 when the Nazis enacted anti-Semitic legislation, and they emigrated the next year from Bremen, Germany, to the United States, in Detroit, where Weizenbaum’s aunt owned a bakery.

At the local high school, Joseph had to learn English, which he didn’t speak at first. “Of all the things that one could study,” he later said, “mathematics seemed by far the easiest. Mathematics is a game. It is entirely abstract.” In his school’s metalworking class, he learned to operate a lathe. The experience brought him out of his brain and into his body. Weizenbaum began studies in mathematics at Wayne State University in Detroit in 1941 but left the next year to join the Army Air Corps, in which he served as a meteorologist. After the war, he returned to complete his studies at the mathematics department, where he worked on the development and programming of the first large computers. In 1952, he went into industry, working on an early General Electric computer development project for the Bank of America.

Weizenbaum joined MIT in 1963 as a visiting associate professor of computer science. Within four years, he had been awarded tenure in the Department of Electrical Engineering. He later held academic appointments at Harvard University, Stanford University, the Technical University of Berlin, and the University of Hamburg in Germany. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the New York Academy of Science, and of the European Academy of Science.

Weizenbaum proudly described himself as a heretic of technology and was a staunch socialist in his youth. In his remarkable 1976 book “Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation” he displayed ambivalence toward computer technology and warned against giving machines the responsibility for making genuinely human choices. Specifically, he argued that it was not just wrong but dangerous and, in some cases, immoral to assume that computers would be able to do anything given enough processing power and clever programming.

Weizenbaum with his wife Ruth Manes and their three elder daughters, 1960
Weizenbaum with his wife Ruth Manes and their three elder daughters, 1960

Weizenbaum’s initial wariness about computers and humanity’s reliance on them later evolved into a deep resentment. “No other organism, and certainly no computer, can be made to confront genuine human problems in human terms,” he wrote. By the early 1980s, he was railing against the concept of computer illiteracy, saying it was a form of “mass hysteria” drummed up by computer manufacturers as a way to sell more products. The real focus, he said, should not be on computer literacy but on literacy itself.

In the middle 1940s, Weizenbaum married Selma Edith Goode (1923-1988), a Jewish civil rights activist and early member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and they had a son David, but in the late 1940s, the couple got divorced. In 1952 Weizenbaum married the schoolteacher Ruth Manes and they had four daughters (Pm (b. 1955), Sharon (b. 1956), Miriam (b. 1960), and Naomi (b. 1961)), but this marriage also ended in divorce in the early 1990s. In 1996, Joseph Weizenbaum moved to Berlin and lived in the vicinity of his childhood neighborhood. He died on 5 March 2008 (aged 85) of stomach cancer, in Gröben, Brandenburg, and was buried in Berlin-Weissensee Jewish Cemetery.