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Joseph Weizenbaum, 85, MIT professor, humanist

JOSEPH WEIZENBAUM JOSEPH WEIZENBAUM (Calvin Campbell/MIT via AP/File 1984)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / March 16, 2008

Joseph Weizenbaum, an MIT professor and a pioneer in artificial intelligence whose famed computer program Eliza seemed to converse with humans in 1964, spent the rest of his life speaking out against substituting machines for human decision-making.

"He was a critic of society and science and a true humanist who really touched people," said Peter Haas, a Vienna-based filmmaker who made the 2007 documentary "Weizenbaum. Rebel at Work."

Mr. Weizenbaum, whose parents fled Nazi Germany when he was a boy, died March 5 in Groben, Germany, from cancer. He was 85.

One of his four daughters, Sharon Weizenbaum, recalled playing with the Eliza program in her father's study at her childhood home in Concord.

"Eliza was something that was fun to fool around with," she said. "It was like a game but we didn't know these amazing things were happening."

Mr. Weizenbaum, who came to MIT in 1962 and became a full professor in 1970, named his computer program after Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower girl in "My Fair Lady" who was transformed into an English lady.

He programmed Eliza to respond to users as a psychotherapist might, reframing statements as questions, and to otherwise use a person's responses to craft replies.

When users began to confide in Eliza, now known as a simple chatterbot program, Mr. Weizenbaum was shocked and began questioning the explosion of technology as a solution to human problems.

By 1976, he authored "Computer Power and Human Reason," spurring debate about human relationships with machines and separating himself from promoters of artificial intelligence.

"The relevant issues are neither technological nor even mathematical; they are ethical," he told the Globe in 1981. "Since we do not now have ways of making computers wise, we ought not now give computers tasks that demand wisdom."

Mr. Weizenbaum advised outlawing "all projects that propose to substitute a computer system for a human function that involves interpersonal respect, understanding, and love."

Growing up in Nazi Germany deeply affected Mr. Weizenbaum's view of the world, according to his family. His family fled when he was 13. He suffered from depression and would immerse himself in documentary films about World War II, according to his family.

He was born in Berlin to furrier Jechiel Weizenbaum and his wife Henrietta. As a child, Mr. Weizenbaum felt rejected by his father and overshadowed by his handsome older brother Heinz, who became an undercover CIA agent known as Henry Sherwood.

"My father was absolutely convinced that I was a worthless moron, a complete fool, that I would never become anything," Mr. Weizenbaum says in the documentary about his life.

His parents immigrated to the United States in 1935. Mr. Weizenbaum studied mathematics in the 1940s at Wayne University in Detroit, Mich. He left to join the US Army Air Corps, but later returned to help design and build an early digital computer.

In 1955, he went to work for General Electric as part of a team that designed and built the first computer system dedicated to banking operations for Bank of America. Among his early technical contributions were the list processing system SLIP.

According to his daughter Miriam Weizenbaum of Providence, Mr. Weizenbaum embraced the internet and other consumer technology in his later years, but became increasingly outspoken about the use of technology in war to create longer distances between humans and the consequences of their decisions.

Patrick Winston, a professor of engineering and computer science at MIT professor, said that Mr. Weizenbaum made important early contributions to technology that is now commonplace in society.

"Viewed from the distance of time, much of what he worried about seems quaint today, especially his concerns about whether experience-lacking computers would make bad decisions on behalf of us experience-grounded humans," Winston wrote in an e-mail response.

The larger message of Mr. Weizenbaum's critiques, he added, "is that we should always stay mindful of the dangers that emerge with new technology and debate those dangers, because some of them will turn out to be real."

Mr. Weizenbaum returned to the German neighborhood of his childhood in the late 1990s and frequently lectured at universities. He held academic appointments at Harvard University, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and at Stanford University, the Technical University of Berlin, and the University of Hamburg in Germany.

His marriage to Ruth Manes Weizenbaum, who now lives in Germany, ended in divorce after four decades.

In addition to his daughters Sharon and Miriam, he leaves Pm Weizenbaum of Seattle; Naomi Weizenbaum of Groben, Germany; four grandsons; and one granddaughter.

Mr. Weizenbaum was buried in Berlin.

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