Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Artful Intelligence -- In Memory of Joseph Weizenbaum

Joseph Wiezenbaum recently passed away while living in Germany. According to the obituary in the New York Times:
Joseph Weizenbaum, whose famed conversational computer program, Eliza, foreshadowed the potential of artificial intelligence, but who grew skeptical about the potential for technology to improve the human condition, died on March 5 in Gröben, Germany. He was 85.


Eliza, written while Mr. Weizenbaum was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964 and 1965 and named after Eliza Doolittle, who learned proper English in “Pygmalion” and “My Fair Lady,” was a groundbreaking experiment in the study of human interaction with machines.

The program made it possible for a person typing in plain English at a computer terminal to interact with a machine in a semblance of a normal conversation. To dispense with the need for a large real-world database of information, the software parodied the part of a Rogerian therapist, frequently reframing a client’s statements as questions.

In fact, the responsiveness of the conversation was an illusion, because Eliza was programmed simply to respond to certain key words and phrases. That would lead to wild non sequiturs and bizarre detours, but Mr. Weizenbaum later said that he was stunned to discover that his students and others became deeply engrossed in conversations with the program, occasionally revealing intimate personal details.

The seductiveness of the conversations alarmed Mr. Weizenbaum, who came to believe that an obsessive reliance on technology was indicative of a moral failing in society, an observation rooted in his experiences as a child growing up in Nazi Germany.
Joe made it back to Germany where a younger generation of philosophers, artists, scientists, and technologists, impressed with his radical break from the clique of bureaucrats he was once associated with, were helping him enjoy his later years in Europe.

I first met him in 2005 when we were both invited by the Director General of UNESCO to speak at the World Summit Conference on "ICT and Creativity" in Vienna. There was Joe, a pony-tailed octogenarian drinking a glass of red wine inside the Chancellor's reception hall (something like the Austrian White House) chatting it up with a bevy of beautiful women. Once the crowd around him had diminished, I went up and introduced myself to him and he was very warm and funny and soon we were walking the streets of Vienna during a late Spring evening looking for a place to eat. We found a mediocre pizza joint, ordered some pizza and more wine, and started talking shop. Shop, though, was not artificial intelligence nor computer related at all, but the human need for companionship. At 82, Joe was as sharp as anyone I knew, and sharing in three hours of conversation with him, almost all of it devoted to human interrelationships and the need for companionship, made the meal seem better than it surely was. We left the restaurant a little tipsy and he hailed the first cab that came by. Leaning out of the window, Joe had a warm smile as he waved goodbye, gave thanks for a fun time together, and then the car sped off.

The next morning, at the summit, we arrived simultaneously, picking up where we had left off and also realized that we were possibly the only speakers who had brought our cameras with us to the summit event. Not because we were tourists (although we were that too), but because we both took our photography serious and wanted to take in the austere surroundings of the location. We each trained our cameras on each other and took photo portraits of each other.

You can catch some of the flavor of the world summit on their summit website (scroll to the bottom for video streams: Joe is in the "Bridging the Digital Divide through Learning and Personal Capacity Building" stream).

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good for people to know.

5:27 AM  

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