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A Tribute to Joseph Weizenbaum by CPSR members

By Doug Schuler 

Joseph Weizenbaum died on March 5. He was a dedicated and compassionate defender of humanity. In terms of technocratic critique he provided important lessons for the generations that followed him.  I hope that his wisdom is not entirely lost as the human enterprise moves into the 21st century.

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By Terry Winograd 

It is a loss to all of us. Joe pointed all of us in the direction that CPSR has taken. I was reminded of awarding him the CPSR Wiener award 20 years ago.  What I said then still applies:

To quote Joe:

"Perhaps the computer, as well as many other of our machines and techniques, can yet be transformed, following our own authentically revolutionary transformation, into instruments to enable us to live harmoniously with nature and with one another. But one prerequisite will first have to be met: there must be another transformation of man. And it must be one that restores a balance between human knowledge, human aspirations, and an appreciation of human dignity such that man may become worthy of living in nature."

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By Erik Nilsson as posted at

Joseph Weizenbaum 1923 - 2008.

Joe Weizenbaum, pioneering and uncompromising computer scientist, passed away this last week. Weizenbaum wrote the computer program ELIZA, and was a relentless foe of oversimplifications of cognition and a defender of what it really means to think. Weizenbaum was a scientist and a thinker in the truest senses of the words.

I didn't really know Joe well, but we were acquaintances. One time, Joe told me the most wonderful story about his daughter. This is when Joe was at MIT and his daughter was about twelve. A colleague of his, an MIT mathematician, was over for dinner. (I forget who.)

Joe's daughter reached for last piece of bread. Joe said, "don't take that." She asked why. Joe said, "because you don't take the last piece of bread." Joe's daughter sat silent for a minute.

"Then nobody can have any bread."

Silence around the table.

Finally, the mathematician couldn't restrain his curiosity as to how a twelve-year old would advance an induction proof. "Why?" he asked.

"Well," she said, "if you can't eat the last piece of bread, it isn't really the last piece...."

Joe's delight in this story was not just pride in his daughter, but the window it opened into one of his favorite subjects: the nature of human cognition. Joe will be missed. We'll miss the person, his utter lack of tolerance for convenient and comforting yet wrong explanations, and his unwillingness to keep his mouth politely shut in the face of bullshit.

More on Joe here and here. Terry Winograd's tribute to Joe on his winning the Norbert Wiener award is here.

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By Seth Grimes as posted at

Parsing Joseph Weizenbaum

I learned of the March 5 death of computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum from a posting on the CPSR e-mail list. CPSR, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, recognized Weizenbaum with their Norbert Wiener Award in 1988. But he was of course best known for creating Eliza, a mid-'60s computer program that conducted natural-language conversations, notably mimicking a psychotherapist's interview with a patient. Eliza was named for the character in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (familiar as the source of the musical My Fair Lady), someone who was similarly taught to impersonate something she was not. Weizenbaum wrote in his 1976 book Computer Power and Human Reason, "Eliza created the most remarkable illusion of having understood in the minds of the many people who conversed with it."

Weizenbaum did pioneering work in artificial intelligence and, in particular, dating to the '60s, in natural language processing. Computer scientists have now been working on language-understanding systems, which remain of great current interest, for decades. But Weizenbaum had broader concerns. He considered the computer, as represented in Computer Power and Human Reason, in a sense "merely as a vehicle for moving certain ideas that are much more important."

Weizenbaum observed, "the quest for control is inherent in all technology," control of course being based on simplified, measurable, programmable models of reality. He rejected "nothing but" thinking that would equate these reductionist frameworks - "reason... is nothing but reckoning" - with "authentic human experience."

Weizenbaum wrote in his 1976 book,

The New York Times has already begun to build a "data  bank" of current events. Of course, only those data that are easily derivable as by-products of typesetting machines are admissible to the system. As the number of subscribers to this system grows, and as they learn more and more to rely on "all the news that [was once] fit to print," as the Times proudly identifies its editorial policy, how long will it be before what counts as fact is determined by the system, before all other knowledge, all memory, is simply declared illegitimate?

In this quotation, substitute "Google" for "the New York Times" and "the Web" for the references to the "data bank" system. Weizenbaum foresaw this substitution three decades ago:

Soon a supersystem will be built, based on the New York Times data bank (or one very like it), from which "historians" will make inferences about what "really" happened, about who is connected to whom, and about the "real" logic of events. There are many people now who see nothing wrong with this.

While I wouldn't claim that Weizenbaum foresaw a Web populated by user-generated content, the emergence of social media does not detract from a 2008 rendering of his 1976 forecast: to be on-line is to be perceived.

Weizenbaum as a humanist and Weizenbaum as a computer scientist who focused on language technologies developed hand-in-hand. "Human language in actual use is infinitely more problematical than those aspects of it that are amenable to treatment by [Claude Shannon's] information theory... Language involves the histories of those using it, hence the history of society, indeed, of all humanity generally."

Doug Schuler wrote the CPSR list, "According to the EE Times, Joseph Weizenbaum died on March 5. He was a dedicated and compassionate defender of humanity. In terms of technocratic critique he provided important lessons for the generations that followed him. I hope that his wisdom is not entirely lost as the human enterprise moves into the 21st century."

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An excerpt from Kent Pitman's remarks
(for the entire posting, please go to

As someone who is not religious (in the formal sense that most people  intend that term), my personal notion of an afterlife is to have passed on sufficient knowledge, information, and wisdom to others that there is a personal mark left for having been present on the Earth in the first place.  He certainly did leave a mark, and so his place in at least one afterlife (us here now) is assured.

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Created by hdihuyen
Last modified March 23, 2008 06:32 PM

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