Joseph Weizenbaum

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Joseph Weizenbaum (Berlin, January 8, 1923 – March 5, 2008) was a German-American author and professor emeritus of computer science at MIT.

Born in Berlin, Germany to Jewish parents, he escaped Nazi Germany in 1935, emigrating with his family to the United States. He started studying mathematics in 1941 in the U.S., but his studies were interrupted by the war, during which he served in the military. Around 1952 he worked on analog computers, and helped create a digital computer for Wayne State University. In 1956 he worked for General Electric on ERMA, a computer system that introduced the use of the magnetically-encoded fonts imprinted on the bottom border of checks, allowing automated check processing via Magnetic Ink Character Recognition (MICR). In 1964 he took a position at MIT.

In 1966, he published a comparatively simple program called ELIZA, named after the ingenue in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, which performed natural language processing. Driven by a script named DOCTOR, it was capable of engaging humans in a conversation which bore a striking resemblance to one with an empathic psychologist. Weizenbaum modeled its conversational style after Carl Rogers, who introduced the use of open-ended questions to encourage patients to communicate more effectively with therapists. The program applied pattern matching rules to the human's statements to figure out its replies. (Programs like this are now called chatterbots.) It is considered the forerunner of thinking machines.[1] Weizenbaum was shocked that his program was taken seriously by many users, who would open their hearts to it. He started to think philosophically about the implications of artificial intelligence and later became one of its leading critics.[2]

His influential 1976 book Computer Power and Human Reason displays his ambivalence towards computer technology and lays out his case: while Artificial Intelligence may be possible, we should never allow computers to make important decisions because computers will always lack human qualities such as compassion and wisdom. Weizenbaum makes the crucial distinction between deciding and choosing. Deciding is a computational activity, something that can ultimately be programmed. It is the capacity to choose that ultimately makes us human. Choice, however, is the product of judgment, not calculation. Comprehensive human judgment is able to include non-mathematical factors, such as emotions. Judgment can compare apples and oranges, and can do so without quantifying each fruit type and then reductively quantifying each to factors necessary for comparison.

Weizenbaum was the creator of the SLIP programming language.

In 1996, Weizenbaum moved to Berlin and lived in the vicinity of his childhood neighborhood.[3][4]

A German documentary film on Weizenbaum was released in 2007 and later dubbed in English.[1]

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