Joseph Weizenbaum, 1923-2008

Professor Emeritus of computer science at MIT, Joseph Weizenbaum, who developed the list processing system known as SLIP and the natural language understanding program called ELIZA—both establishing his role in the early days of computer science research, died March 5, 2008 in Gröben, Germany. He was 85.

Joseph Weizenbaum, 1923-2008

Joseph Weizenbaum, 1923-2008

At the beginning of his career in computer science, Weizenbaum worked on analog computers and later helped design and build a digital computer at Wayne University in Detroit, Michigan. In 1955 he became a member of the General Electric team that designed and built ERMA, the first computer system dedicated to banking operations.

Joe Weizenbaum joined MIT in 1963 as a visiting associate professor of computer science. Within four years he was awarded tenure in the Department of Electrical Engineering. His most recognized creation, the ELIZA program was developed in 1964-65 in an effort to study how humans interact with machines. What was perhaps a first instance of a ‘chatterbot’ program, ELIZA, which used pattern matching rules to the human’s statements to figure out its replies, convincingly engaged users in conversation as if in a psycho-therapy session.

Weizenbaum was shocked that his program was taken seriously by many users, who would open their hearts to it. This work prompted Weizenbaum to question the implications of artificial intelligence as substitute for human decision-making—eventually culminating in a 1976 book, “Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation.” He wrote: “No other organism, and certainly no computer, can be made to confront genuine human problems in human terms.”

Joseph Weizenbaum retired to his native Germany in 1996, where he spoke frequently on the political and social consequences of technology. He leaves his former wife, Ruth Manes Weizenbaum and their daughter Sharon, of Amherst, MA, as well as three other daughters: Miriam, of Providence, RI; Naomi, of Gröben, Germany; and Pm, of Seattle, WA.

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