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Joseph Weizenbaum was a professor emeritus of computer science at MIT. Born in Berlin to Jewish parents, he escaped Nazi Germany in 1936, emigrating with his family to the United States. He started studying mathematics in 1941 in the US, but his studies were interrupted by the war, during which he served in the military. Around 1950 he worked on analog computers, and helped create a digital computer for Wayne State University. In 1955 he worked for General Electric on the first computer used for banking, and in 1963 took a position at MIT.
In 1966, he published a comparatively simple program called ELIZA, which demonstrated natural language processing by engaging humans into a conversation resembling that with an empathic psychologist. The program applied pattern-matching rules to the human’s statements to figure out its replies. (Programs like this are now called chatterbots.) Weizenbaum was shocked that his program was taken seriously by many users, who would open their hearts to it. He started to think philosophically about the implications of Artificial Intelligence and later became one of its leading critics. His influential 1976 book Computer Power and Human Reason displays ambivalence towards computer technology and lays out his case: while Artificial Intelligence may be possible, we should never allow computers to make important decisions because computers will always lack human qualities such as compassion and wisdom. This he sees as a consequence of their not having been raised in the emotional environment of a human family.
Weizenbaum is the creator of the SLIP programming language. Today he is Chairman of the Scientific Council at the Institute of Electronic Business in Berlin.
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