RIP Josef Weizenbaum

Joseph Weizenbaum in Jena, November 2006

“A computer will do what you tell it to do, but that may be much different from what you had in mind”

One of the pioneers of computer science, Josef Weizenbaum, died on the 5th March, . 

Several years ago I read his book Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation. It would now be an appropriate time to re-read it.

He fled Berlin in 1935 as a boy, studied maths, and worked on some of the first computers after the war. He became one of the giants of computer science research. He probably has done more than anyone to explore the potential of computers and artificial intelligence. He recently returned to live in Berlin mitte.

He invented ELIZA,    The original paper is here. 

a conversation between eliza and a young woman

young woman: Men are all alike.

eliza: In what way?

young woman: They’re always bugging us about something specific or other.

eliza: Can you think of a specific example?

young woman: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

eliza: Your boyfriend made you come here?

young woman: He says I’m depressed much of the time.

eliza: I am sorry to hear you are depressed.

young woman: It’s true. I’m unhappy.

eliza: Do you think coming here will help you not to be unhappy?

young woman: I need some help, that much seems certain.

eliza: What would it mean to you if you got some help?

young woman: Perhaps I could learn to get along with my mother.

eliza: Tell me more about your family.

young woman: My mother takes care of me.

eliza: Who else in your family takes care of you?

young woman: My father.

eliza: Your father.

young woman: You are like my father in some ways.

eliza: What resemblance do you see?

young woman: You are not very aggressive but I think you don’t want me to notice that.

eliza: What makes you think I am not very aggressive?

young woman: You don’t argue with me.

eliza: Why do you think I don’t argue with you?

young woman: You are afraid of me.

eliza: Does it please you to believe I am afraid of you?

young woman: My father is afraid of everybody.

eliza: What else comes to mind when you think of your father?

young woman: Bullies.

eliza: Does that have anything to do with the fact that your boyfriend made you come here?

This work is a fundamental building block of modern computer science, whether it is gaming, business software or virtual worlds.

You may also find this interview interesting .

I stumbled across a website about him

To speak only of Joseph Weizenbaum’s lifetime technological achievements would not do him justice.  He is an engineer and computer scientist by profession but a humanitarian at heart.  Weizenbaum has a deep concern for education and the direction for computer applications.  When asked about the benefits computers could bring to the classroom, Weizenbaum’s reply was indicative of establishing a first priority to determine what problems currently exist within the institution.  Only after answering such questions about education can one look to computers to provide some answers.  Aside from developing the world’s first banking software for Bank of America, Weizenbaum has contributed to the field of artificial intelligence and is the author of the famous ELIZA program.  ELIZA, modeled from Rogerian psychology, is a computer program that carries out natural language conversations with the user.  Weizenbaum firmly believes that science is not impenetrable to the human will, and he hopes that students today consider the moral and ethical ramifications of their work.

Probably more than anyone else, Weizenbaum raised significant questions about the ethical and moral challenges of computerization. I suppose the simplest way to paraphrase him would be just because something is technically possible, doesn’t make it ethically correct. He challenges computer scientists to think beyond just technology. He spent most of his life thinking about what it is to be human.

I’ll also have to watch this movie.

“The computer programmer is a creator of universes for which he alone is responsible. Universes of virtually unlimited complexity can be created in the form of computer programs.”

(I think Loic Le Meur treated him very poorly  in the Davos panel discussion.  I’m guessing  he had no idea who he was talking to.)

 

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3 thoughts on “RIP Josef Weizenbaum

  1. Another long shadow passes. I had access to a SNOBOL implementation of running on a Univac 1108 in ’73-’74. The interactions deeply shaped my perspective on interfaces.

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