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Obituaries / Joseph Weizenbaum, 1923 - 2008

Programmer and inventor of the ELIZA computer language

March 14, 2008|From the Associated Press

Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer programmer who invented the natural-language-understanding program known as ELIZA and later grew skeptical of artificial intelligence, has died, his family said Thursday. He was 85.

Weizenbaum died March 5 of complications from stomach cancer at the home of his daughter in Groeben, Germany, outside Berlin, said Miriam Weizenbaum, one of his four daughters.

Weizenbaum was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s when he developed ELIZA -- named for Eliza Doolittle, the heroine of the George Bernard Shaw play "Pygmalion" -- which became his best-known contribution to computer programming.

"The ELIZA program simulated a conversation between a patient and a psychotherapist by using a person's responses to shape the computer's replies," according to an MIT release. "Weizenbaum was shocked to discover that many users were taking his program seriously and were opening their hearts to it. The experience prompted him to think philosophically about the implications of artificial intelligence and, later, to become a critic of it."

In his 1976 book, "Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation," Weizenbaum suggested that it could be both dangerous and immoral to assume computers could eventually take over any role, given enough processing power and the right programming.

"No other organism, and certainly no computer, can be made to confront genuine human problems in human terms," he wrote.

Born Jan. 8, 1923, in Berlin, Weizenbaum fled to the United States in 1936 with his family to escape persecution as Jews.

He began studying math at what is now Wayne State University in Detroit in 1941. A year later he quit to join the U.S. Army Air Forces and serve as a meteorologist.

After the war, he completed his studies. Early in his career he worked on analog machines and later helped design and build a digital computer at the school.

He joined a General Electric Co. team in 1955 that designed and built the first computer system dedicated to banking operations.

Besides his work at MIT, beginning in 1963, he held academic appointments at many schools, including Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of Bremen.

He was chairman of the scientific council at Berlin's Institute of Electronic Business at the time of his death.

In addition to his daughters, Weizenbaum is survived by a son, David Goode of San Jose; and five grandchildren.

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