Joseph Weizenbaum, who invented the famous “virtual psychiatrist” computer program Eliza, died from cancer on March 5 in Groben, Germany at age 85.
> How does that make you feel?
Sad. Weizenbaum was a pioneer in computer science and professor at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, where he created Eliza in 1966.
> Tell me more…
Eliza was a simple question & answer program in the form of today’s online chat software. Eliza parodied a Rogerian psycho-therapist, mostly by rephrasing the user/patient’s statements as questions and posing them back to the patient. This eliminated the need for a large real-world database.
> I’m not sure I understand you fully.
Eliza foreshadowed the potential of artificial intelligence, but Weizenbaum was stunned to discover how many people became engrossed in conversations with Eliza, even revealing intimate personal details. Over time, Weizenbaum grew skeptical about technology’s ability to improve the human condition.
> Can’t you be more positive?
In his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, Weizenbaum criticized systems that substituted automated decision-making for the human mind. He also believed there were “transcendent qualities in the human experience that could not be duplicated in interactions with machines” such as “the wordless glance that a father and mother share over the bed of their sleeping child.” (source)
> What does that suggest to you?
As Theodore Piszak wrote, Weizenbaum’s book was “Superb…The work of a man who is struggling with the utmost seriousness to save our humanity from the reductionist onslaught of one of the most prestigious, active, and richly funded technologies of our time.”
Article published on March 13, 2008
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