Remembering Joe Weizenbaum, ELIZA Creator

The MIT researcher and debunker of 'Thinking Machines' died earlier this month at the age of 85.

W. David Gardner, Contributor

March 13, 2008

3 Min Read

Joseph Weizenbaum, the brilliant MIT researcher who threw water on some of the wildest predictions about computers as "thinking machines," died earlier this month in Germany. He was 85.

Weizenbaum was best known for ELIZA, a program designed in 1966 to establish natural language conversation with a computer by emulating a Rogerian therapist. It was originally presented on a MAC time-sharing system at MIT and written in SLIP -- a list processing language Weizenbaum created -- for the IBM 7094. The name ELIZA was chosen because Weizenbaum and his team predicted that the software could be incrementally improved by its users through parsing and substitution teaching methods, similar to the way that the character of Eliza Doolittle learned from her teacher Henry Higgins in the George Bernard Shaw novel Pygmalion.

A typical example of Weizenbaum's man-machine conversation included a chat between a simulated therapist and a patient.

A segment follows:

"Men are all alike," the patient states.

"In what way," asks the computer-therapist?

"They're always bugging us about something."

"Can you think of a specific example?"

"Well, my boyfriend made me come here."

"Your boyfriend made you come here?"

"He says I'm depressed much of the time."

"I'm sorry to hear you are depressed."

"It's true."

At this point in the conversation when he tested it in his office, Weizenbaum's secretary asked him to leave, because the conversation was getting too personal.

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."

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 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.

Born in Berlin in 1923, Weizenbaum moved back to Germany in 1996, according to media reports. He left Germany as a child in 1935, his family fleeing from the Nazi regime. He became a professor of computer science at MIT in 1970. He died in Groeben, Germany.

In 2007, Il Mare Film created an 80-minute documentary entitled "Weizenbaum. Rebel At Work." 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.

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