Joseph Weizenbaum – A humane vision for technology

Peter JonesHuman Values

Joe Weizenbaum died at age 85 last week in Berlin, and a few obscure technology news services have published the story. MIT posted its lauds for their alumnus in a press release yesterday, but his passing has not lit up the news wires.  As with many issues in the 21st century, it’s up to the blogs to inform and comment.  A creator of computer languages and artificial intelligence systems and theories, Weizenbaum was probably known for inventing one of the first AI systems (1962), the ELIZA program. ELIZA was an interactive dialogue  process based on Rogerian non-directive psychotherapy (“So you are saying you are angry? Tell me more …”)  While may seem like a crude approach by 2008 standards, this was nearly 50 years ago.  As with many scientific leaders from his generation (who personally experienced WWII and the Great Depression), he grew skeptical of technological accomplishments and became a passionate advocate for humane applications of technology.

In 1988 he was awarded the Norbert Weiner prize for professional and social responsibility by CPSR, the professional society that sponsors the Participatory Design conferences. Terry Winograd presented his remarks with the prize award, with words as timely today as then, compared his moral vision with that of Wiener’s:

Both fought with a passion against the destructive madness of high technology at the service of war. Both wrote highly influential books about the problems of humanity and technology, moving beyond discussion of the machinery to a broad consideration of human actions, values, and ethical responsibilities. Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason stands alongside Wiener’s books on science and society as a powerful reminder that wisdom and technical mastery are not the same, and that we confuse them at our peril.

Other humane visionaries known for their advancements of technology have passed away recently, and we are called by the deep humanity in our field  to keep their hope and vision alive in our own public and professional lives. Jm Gray and Jef Raskin come to mind. And the viral popularity of Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture (given a push by Oprah and the Web) has awakened an international audience to the power of a personal vision for taking a stand to create a better world.