Joseph Weizenbaum: The First Humanist Technologist

I was enjoying an unpublished NYT review from 1975 today of the late Dr. Joseph Weizenbaum’s, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation.

Dr. Weizenbaum was my professor in the artificial intelligence course I took at MIT in the 80s. I recall whispers from graduate student TAs that he was extraordinarily famous, but like any normal teenager I was summarily dismissive of him as just another prof. But years later it hit me that he was the inventor of the famous Eliza program — which was the predecessor to all the AI chatbots that we encounter today.

Over fifty years ago, Dr. Weizenbaum created the first program to simulate conversation in English with a computer, and succeeded in fooling his students to believe they were talking with a real human being. But rather than revel in the implications of his newly developed technology for fame or for profit, Dr. Weizenbaum’s career took a unique turn. He left the emerging field of Computer Science and in the 70s he published the book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, which was the world’s first critique of the future relation between the computer and human beings.

I love what the reviewer writes here about Dr. Weizenbaum’s book in 1976:

“Computers will not give us magical answers to the problems that we, or they, create: with sweat and insight we may be able to develop them as ever more effective tools to serve human needs.” —Dr. Joseph Lederberg (1925 – 2008)

I do hope he’s right. —JM