Joseph Weizenbaum, Famed Programmer, Is Dead at 85
Joseph Weizenbaum, Famed Programmer, Is Dead at 85
March 13, 2008
By JOHN MARKOFF
Joseph Weizenbaum, whose famed conversational computer program, Eliza, foreshadowed the potential of artificial intelligence, but who grew skeptical about the potential for technology to improve the human condition, died on March 5 in Gröben, Germany. He was 85.
The cause was complications of cancer, said his daughter Sharon Weizenbaum.
Eliza, written while Mr. Weizenbaum was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964 and 1965 and named after Eliza Doolittle, who learned proper English in “Pygmalion” and “My Fair Lady,” was a groundbreaking experiment in the study of human interaction with machines.
The program made it possible for a person typing in plain English at a computer terminal to interact with a machine in a semblance of a normal conversation. To dispense with the need for a large real-world database of information, the software parodied the part of a Rogerian therapist, frequently reframing a client’s statements as questions.
In fact, the responsiveness of the conversation was an illusion, because Eliza was programmed simply to respond to certain key words and phrases. That would lead to wild non sequiturs and bizarre detours, but Mr. Weizenbaum later said that he was stunned to discover that his students and others became deeply engrossed in conversations with the program, occasionally revealing intimate personal details.
“It was amazing the extent that people did not understand they were talking to a computer,” said Robert Fano, emeritus professor of electrical engineering and computer science at M.I.T. In the wake of the creation of Eliza, which was described in a technical paper in January 1966, a group of M.I.T. scientists, including Claude Shannon, a pioneer in the field of cybernetics, met in Concord, Mass., to discuss the social implications of the phenomenon, Mr. Fano said.
The seductiveness of the conversations alarmed Mr. Weizenbaum, who came to believe that an obsessive reliance on technology was indicative of a moral failing in society, an observation rooted in his experiences as a child growing up in Nazi Germany.
In 1976, he sketched out a humanist critique of computer technology in his book “Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation.” The book did not argue against the possibility of artificial intelligence but rather was a passionate criticism of systems that substituted automated decision-making for the human mind. In the book, he argued that computing served as a conservative force in society by propping up bureaucracies as well as by redefining the world in a reductionist sense, by restricting the potential of human relationships.
“He raised questions about what kinds of relationships we want to have with machines very early,” said Sherry Turkle, a professor in the program in science, technology and society at M.I.T. who taught courses with Mr. Weizenbaum on the social implications of technology.
Mr. Weizenbaum also believed that there were transcendent qualities in the human experience that could not be duplicated in interactions with machines. He described it in his book as “the wordless glance that a father and mother share over the bed of their sleeping child,” Ms. Turkle said.
The book drove a wedge between Mr. Weizenbaum and other members of the artificial intelligence research community. In his later years he said he came to take pride in his self-described status as a “heretic,” estranged from the insular community of elite computer researchers.
Joseph Weizenbaum was born on Jan. 8, 1923, in Berlin. He was the second son of Jechiel Weizenbaum, a furrier, and his wife, Henrietta. 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.
He 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. In 1962, he was invited to become a visiting professor at M.I.T. and in 1970 became a professor of computer science at the school.
Attracted by his childhood experiences and the German language, Mr. Weizenbaum decided to return to Germany in 1996. His social criticism of computing technology was warmly received by a younger generation there. Much honored in German, he spoke frequently on the political and social consequences of technology.
His marriage to Ruth Manes Weizenbaum ended in divorce. Besides his daughter Sharon, of Amherst, Mass., he is survived by three other daughters: Miriam, of Providence, R.I.; Naomi, of Gröben; and Pm, of Seattle.