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AI pioneer Joseph Weizenbaum dies

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.
Image: Joseph Weizenbaum
Joseph Weizenbaum created ELIZA, a computer program that could shape replies based on a person's response — and "an important development in artificial intelligence," according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.Calvin Campbell / AP
/ Source: 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 just outside the German capital, said Miriam Weizenbaum, one of his four daughters.

He was buried at a small family service in the Jewish Cemetery in Berlin. A public memorial is scheduled for March 18 in the capital.

Besides his four daughters, Weizenbaum is survived by a son, David Goode of San Jose, California, and five grandchildren.

Weizenbaum was born Jan. 8, 1923, in Berlin and fled to the United States in 1936 with his family to escape persecution as Jews, according to a short 2003 biography published by Magdeburg's Leibniz-Institut fuer Neurobiologie.

He began studying math at Detroit's then-Wayne University in 1941, but broke off a year later to join the U.S. Army Air Corps where he served as a meteorologist. The school is now called Wayne State University.

After the war, he completed his studies and early in his career he worked on analog machines, later helping design and build a digital computer at the school, the newsletter Tech Talk from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported Wednesday.

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

"Among his early technical contributions were the list processing system, SLIP, and the natural language understanding program ELIZA, which was an important development in artificial intelligence and cemented his role in the folklore of computer science research," Tech Talk said.

Weizenbaum was a professor at MIT when he developed ELIZA — named for Eliza Doolittle, the heroine of "My Fair Lady" — 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," Tech Talk reported. "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."

During the Vietnam era, he participated in anti-war protests outside Draper Laboratory at MIT against weapons research being conducted there, not bothered by the fact he was protesting his employer, Miriam Weizenbaum recalled.

"He passed on what I believe is a really healthy questioning of authority," she said.

In his 1976 book "Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation," Weizenbaum suggested it could be both dangerous and immoral to assume computers could eventually take over any roll, 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.

Besides his work at MIT, he held academic appointments at many schools, including Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of Bremen, among others. Berlin's Humboldt University awarded him an honorary doctorate on his 80th birthday in 2003.

Berlin's Institute of Electronic Business, where he was chairman of its Scientific Council at the time of his death, called him a "highly regarded and dedicated" member of their team.

Besides his work with computers, Miriam Weizenbaum said her father was a "phenomenal" photographer who loved telling jokes and stories.

"He had a wonderful sense of the absurd and was a great story teller," she said. "He would make up stories for us when we were kids."