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Joseph Weizenbaum dead at 85

Mathematician and professor of computer science at MIT, Joseph Weizenbaum, died at 85 on March the 5th.

He is probably best known for his ”psychoanalysis program” Eliza – named after Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. Many people were fascinated by this relatively simple program’s ability to mimic ”human” conversation. On the other hand, Weizenbaum chose to emulate an orthodox psychoanalyst and his rather laconic comments – often a rather mechanic repetition of the analysand’s statements in query form. This limitation made it comparatively easy to construct the program.

Personally, I was struck by something he wrote in Computer Power and Human Reason, 1976, that since man is ”conscious of himself as a social creature and as one who will inevitably die, he is necessarily a teacher.” In order for us to accomplish a society that can evolve and not remain on, say, stone-age level, we need to pass on knowledge and experience between generations as the baton in a relay race.

Weizenbaum was, of course, interested in what was to be called artificial intelligence, but he was also very critical of the concept.

In January, Weizenbaum wrote this article, Wir gegen die Gier (We against greed), in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which begins thus (my translation):

The natural sciences are not the only source of truth. The foundation of science is a belief, namely the belief that the laws of nature – not just those we know of today – will prevail in the totality of space, from the very beginning and into the eternal future. But no experiment can verify this belief.
The task of science is to ask nature questions. There are an infinite number of questions that can be put. Of these, scientists need to choose the few that they can actually process.
This choice comes out of the zeitgeist of the culture in which it is made, strongly characterized, almost determined. Consequently, natural science as well as the technologies derived from it is not devoid of values.

The article is a more elaborate version of a 17 point compilation that Weizenbaum had previously put together under the title Was ich am Ende meine Lebens Glaube. I think we can regard this as the relay race baton he would like to hand over to us.

PS. At this blog you can read how Eliza gets to know that her creator is dead.

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