You may not know Joe Weizenbaum’s name, but many people are familiar with the computer program he wrote more than 40 years ago, Eliza. Eliza mimics a Rogerian psychotherapist, picking up key words you type in and spitting them back in the form of questions:
You: “I feel anxious today.” Eliza: “That’s interesting. What are you anxious about?” Etc.
In some ways it was very simple minded and Joe himself considered it a parody of psychotherapy. But in other ways it struck a deep chord. It was one of the first computer programs to simulate a human conversation and to give the impression of a sentient being in the box. Joe told me once how stunned he was one day to come into his office to find his secretary having a session with Eliza. She asked for privacy. Disturbed by her failure to recognize this was just a machine and moreover one she knew her boss had programmed, he set to work on his groundbreaking book, Computer Power and Human Reason (1976), multiple drafts of which he circulated via a Department of Defense electronic network called ARPANet, the forerunner to the internet. I have a typescript of it somewhere, as well as an autographed copy of the published version.
It was a highly controversial book in the computer science community, at least that part of the community involved in what became known as Artificial Intelligence. Joe excoriated those who intimated there was any equivalence between Artificial Intelligence and Human Intelligence. He worried the failure to understand the difference between a programmed response and genuine intelligence was a slippery slope to the kind of seductive and silent acquiescence to immorality that drove his family from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. From his obituary in the New York Times:
“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. (Obituary, New York Times)
When I was a young academic I had the tremendous good fortune to know an unusual group of public intellectuals: Phil Morrison, Noam Chomsky, Jerry Lettvin, Steve Gould, Ruth and George Wald, Dick Levins, Dick Lewontin — and Joe Weizenbaum. Some of them I knew better than others and Joe was one I knew well. Joe and his wife Ruth came to dinner one night at our small apartment and Mrs. R., who is a fine cook, made lasagna. She was nervous about entertaining someone of his stature. About halfway through the meal, Joe asked casually if there were any eggs in the meal and Mrs. R. said, “no.” Later he mentioned that Ruth was very allergic to egg whites, and it was then I saw Mrs. R.’s face go white as well, as she remembered there were indeed eggs in the lasagna. Ruth seemed fine and nothing happened, but Mrs. R. has not forgotten it, even over the space of more than 35 years.
When we saw Joe’s obit in the newspaper, Mrs. R. told me she had a real soft spot in her heart for him because, although when she first met him he was already a famous public intellectual and she was still working as a lab tech (she later earned a doctorate), he never made her feel inferior or stupid. He was invariably kind and respectful of others, and his warmth was irresistible. I saw Joe fairly often in those days, but even more often after his long marriage broke up. We used to meet frequently for coffee at a local cafe and spent many hours just talking: science, politics, what was going on in the world. Widely read, sophisticated and very smart, he was an extremely moral person, with high principles not always easy to live up to. When he went off to live in Europe in his later years we lost touch and I had not seen him for some time.
So now he is gone, dead of cancer at the age of 85. I can’t say anything to him any more. But I can say to the rest of you what I feel: it was a privilege to know this man.