Joseph Weizenbaum: Humanist Technologist

My previous writing on Dr. Weizenbaum

Dr. Joseph 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.

As a child Dr. Weizenbaum fled Nazi Germany and escaped the Holocaust. So his world view was significantly different from most technologists today, and even during his time at MIT. When you keep that context in mind and read his words from Computer Power and Human Reason,

“The computer programmer is a creator of universes for which he alone is the lawgiver. No playwright, no stage director, no emperor, however powerful, has ever exercised such absolute authority to arrange a stage or field of battle and to command such unswervingly dutiful actors or troops.”

Dr. Joseph Weizenbaum

Dr. Weizenbaum’s words might give you pause to question the alternative reality we’re about to be sending all the worlds’ minds into … and hopefully before that happens, we’ll all healthily question where this all is leading towards. For only by doing so will we be able to realize the great responsibility we technologists profoundly wield for future generations to come.

Info on a 2006 film “Weizenbaum: A Rebel At Work” is here.