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Joseph Weizenbaum – AI & Humanity

  • On April 21, 2008


Joseph Weizenbaum died at the ripe old age of 85 last month (NYTime Obituary). Weizenbaum was best known for ELIZA, a program designed in 1966 to establish natural language conversation with a computer by emulating a Rogerian therapist (Online Version of ELIZA). Weizenbaum was the first to note that the ELIZA conversations weren’t an example of computer “thinking,” but really consisted of some clever programming techniques. His argument that computers were merely tools to assist humans in their everyday lives put him in opposition to many of the leading researchers in the emerging field of artificial intelligence.


A few years after he wrote ELIZA, the idea of the thinking computer gained popular credence. A famous article in Life magazine in 1970 entitled “Meet Shakey, the First Electronic Person” was testament to this. Shakey was a Stanford University robot and one of Weizenbaum’s colleagues at MIT was quoted in the Life article as saying: “In from three to eight years we will have a machine with general intelligence of an average human being.”

Shakey the Robot was the first mobile robot to be able to reason to some degree about its own actions.

Soon, the popular media was trumpeting the impending arrival of thinking machines and it was left largely to Weizenbaum to put the issue in perspective and to note that computers as thinking machines weren’t right around the corner. He drew more fire from the AI community from his book, “Computer Power and Human Reason” that argued in part that man from the view of information processing is looked at as a means and not as an end. He worried that many computer scientists were following paths that were dehumanizing. Weizenbaum argued, essentially, that computers impose a mechanistic point of view on their users on us and that that perspective can all too easily crowd out other, possibly more human, perspectives.

Weizenbaum considered himself a gadfly and even heretic of the artificial intelligence community, which has had soaring flights and deep drops in acceptance and interest since he wrote ELIZA in the mid-1960s. AI currently is in a down draft as the firms that were built around it in the 1980s have largely faded from view. In 2007, Il Mare Film created an 80-minute documentary entitled “Weizenbaum. Rebel At Work.” Trailer The film is a personal portrait of the man and his life, with him telling mainly stories. Originally produced in German, an American version is available with subtitles and voice-over. The site also has a photo gallery of Weizenbaum’s life supported by audio clips from the film.

more articles on Joseph EDGE, Technium, MIT

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