Welcome to the A.L.I.C.E. AI Foundation

Promoting the adoption and development of Alicebot and AIML free software.

From Eliza to A.L.I.C.E.

Dr. Richard S. Wallace

Dr. Richard S. Wallace

The story of Joseph Weizenbaum is in many ways almost as interesting as that of Turing. An early pioneer in computer science, Weizenbaum was one of the fortunate few to join the embryonic MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in the early 1960s. His most celebrated accomplishment was the development of ELIZA, a program so entertaining that it still attracts clients to its web site today. ELIZA is based on very simple pattern recognition, based on a stimulus-response model.

ELIZA also introduced the personal pronoun transformations common to ALICE and many other programs. "Tell me what you think about me" is transformed by the robot into "You want me to tell you what I think about you?" creating a simple illusion of understanding.

Weizenbaum tells us that he was shocked by the experience of releasing ELIZA (also known as "Doctor") to the nontechnical staff at the MIT AI Lab. Secretaries and nontechnical administrative staff thought the machine was a "real" therapist, and spent hours revealing their personal problems to the program. When Weizenbaum informed his secretary that he, of course, had access to the logs of all the conversations, she reacted with outrage at this invasion of her privacy. Weizenbaum was shocked by this and similar incidents to find that such a simple program could so easily deceive a naive user into revealing personal information.

What Weizenbaum found specifically revolting was that the Doctor's patients actually believed the robot really understood their problems. They believed the robot therapist could help them in a constructive way. His reaction might be best understood like that of a western physician's disapproval of herbal medicines, or an astronomer's disdain for astrology. Obviously ELIZA touched something deep in the human experience, but not what its author intended.

From the back cover of Computer Power and Human Reason by Joseph Weizenbaum (1976):

"Dare I say it? This is the best book I have read on the impact of computers on society, and on technology and man's image of himself." --- Keith Oatley, Psychology Today

"A thoughtful blend of insight, experience, anecdote, and passion that will stand for a long time as the definitive integration of technological and humanistic thought." --- American Mathematical Monthly

"Superb...The work of a man who is struggling with the utmost seriousness to save our humanity from the reductionist onslaught of one of the most prestigious, active, and richly funded technologies of our time." --- Theodore Piszak, The Nation

Weizenbaum perceived his own program as a threat. This is a rare experience in the history of computer science. Nowadays it is hard to imagine anyone coming up with an original idea for a software program and saying, "no, this program is a dangerous genie and needs to be put back into the bottle." His first reaction was to shut down the early ELIZA program. His second reaction was to write a book about the whole experience, eventually published in 1972 as Computer Power and Human Reason.

Computer Power and Human Reason seems a bit quaint today, much the same as Turing's 1950 paper does. For one thing, Weizenbaum perceived his mission as partly to educate an uninformed public about computers. Presumably the uneducated public confused science fiction with reality. Thus most of Computer Power is devoted to explaining how a computer works: this is a disk drive, this is memory, this is a logic gate, and so on. In 1972 such a primer may have necessary for the public, but today it might seem like the content for Computers for Dummies.

Two chapters of Computer Power and Human Reason are however devoted to an attack on artificial intelligence, on ELIZA specifically, and on computer science research in general. Weizenbaum is perhaps the stereotypical 1960's neo-Luddite. Not only would he slow down the pace of research, he would roll back the clock to a pre-computational era. One reviewer praises Weizenbaum for saving humanity from the "reductionist onslaught" of AI research, driven in those days by generous funds from the military-industrial complex.

Most contemporary researchers did not need much convincing that ELIZA was at best a gimmick, at worst a hoax, and in any case not a "serious" artificial intelligence project. The irony of Joseph Weizenbaum and Computer Power and Human Reason is that, by failing to promote his own technology, indeed by encouraging his own critics, he successfully blocked further investigation into what would prove to be one of the most promising and persistently interesting demonstrations to emerge from the early AI Lab.