A Brief Biography of Joseph Weizenbaum

Last Updated on November 11, 2020 by Sean B

Artificial intelligence is a field with an enormous legacy and rich history which extends decades into the past. One of the major names in the history of Artificial Intelligence is Joseph Weizenbaum, who is considered one of the founding fathers of Artificial Intelligence. Weizenbaum’s work is widely acknowledged in the field of AI and is so important that there is an award named after him.

In today’s blog, we shall take a glimpse at a short biography of Joseph Weizenbaum’s legacy, career, accomplishments, and impact on AI, computer science, and chatbots.

Early Life and Studies

Joseph Weizenbaum was born in Berlin, Germany, on the 8th of  January 1923. Joseph Weizenbaum’s parents were Jewish, and at the time of his birth, Germany was heading towards a dark period. Within ten years, it would be in the control of the Nazis, which made matters complicated and harsh for Joseph and his parents.

At that time, the Jewish people in Germany were facing open persecution, and the circumstances were not at all favorable for Joseph and his parents. Fortunately, in 1926 when Joseph was three years old, his family escaped Germany and moved to the United States for immigration.

After reaching the United States, Joseph started studying mathematics in 1941 at Wayne State University, situated in Detroit, Michigan. However, in 1942, Joseph Weizenbaum had to leave his studies in jeopardy to serve in the US Army air corps.

His work in the US Army Air Corps consisted of meteorology, i.e., weather processing and forecasting. Due to him being originally from Germany, Joseph faced discrimination and was labeled as an “Enemy Alien.” Joseph’s status also prevented him from lending his services as a cryptologist in the US Army air corps.

After the war ended in 1946, Joseph Weizenbaum returned to Wayne State University to complete his BS in mathematics. In 1948, Joseph Weizenbaum received his BS, and then in 1950, Joseph Weizenbaum received his MS as well.

Research and Career

After completing his studies, Joseph Weizenbaum started working as a research assistant at Wayne State University in 1952. Joseph’s work was focused on analog computers, and he also helped in creating a digital computer.


In 1965, Joseph Weizenbaum worked for the General Electric company on Erma. Erma (Electronic Recording Machine, Accounting) was an advanced computer technology of it’s time that allowed automation of Bank Bookkeeping, and check processing.

The project began under the supervision of a non-profit research institution SRI International in 1950 under a Bank of America contract. The project came to public attention when it was revealed publicly in September 1955.

ERMA was a milestone in the field of finance as it allowed for automation and established the foundation for computerized banking, credit-card processing by introducing the use of magnetically encoded fonts on the bottom border of checks and Magnetic Ink Character Recognition (MICR).

Bank of America in 1950 was a leading bank in the world in the use of checks. The bank’s enormous workload in terms of the number of checks was posing an overwhelming problem for the bank, so the bank decided to join hands with SRI’s director of engineering, Thomas H Morrin, to initiate studies on automation of check processing and book handling.

Studies on automation changed the way checks were kept; checks used to be ordered alphabetically, which necessitated the reshuffling of the whole list. With the introduction of automation, the ordering was changed to a numeric system to save time. After the second study, a final prototype was released and among GE’s team was Joseph Weizenbaum, who had become a pioneer by that time.

Work in MIT

Joseph Weizenbaum joined MIT in 1964. Joseph lent his extensive experience and services to MIT and also helped the computer scientists there achieve milestones in Artificial Intelligence by creating ELIZA, a program that simulated a Psychotherapist and building upon the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence.


Joseph Weizenbaum published a simple program called ELIZA in 1966, widely accepted to be the world’s first chatbot. The ELIZA chatbot was named after an Ingenue, Eliza Doolittle from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. ELIZA was created in Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and was capable of natural language processing.

The script used in ELIZA was called DOCTOR and was meant to simulate a Rogerian Psychotherapist. Joseph’s goal in the making ELIZA was to show the superficiality of communication between humans and machines.

ELIZA worked by using a mechanism of “pattern matching” and substitution methodology, which provided the illusion that the program is conversing with them. ELIZA did not have any built-in framework which she could use to contextualize the conversations.

ELIZA was highly effective at engaging with users. ELIZA’s psychological part was based on Carl Rogers. It was able to hold empathetic conversations with the users, specifically open-ended questions, which encourage the patients to talk to the program more comfortably.

Joseph Weizenbaum was shocked to see the views of the users on his program. Joseph Weizenbaum did not expect humans to open their hearts to simple computer simulation. One of the more interestint and a somewhat humorous event that happened is when Joseph was observing his secretary while she was having a conversation with his chatbot. She asked, “Would you mind leaving the room please?” because she wanted to continue her discussion with the chatbot in provate.

ELIZA and the Turing Test

ELIZA is cited by many as the first-ever chatbot and fundamentally changed how we used to think about automata. Many academics expected ELIZA to help humans positively influence their lives and be a good therapist for those with psychological issues.

Not only did ELIZA exhibited intelligence and the capability to converse with humans interactively, but she was also the first bot to ever attempt the Turing Test, proposed by mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing.

The user could talk to ELIZA by a text system, user inputs via a keyboard, and ELIZA looked for keywords in the user input, attached values to those keywords, and then transformed the text and provided it to the user as an output.

The Legacy of ELIZA

Eliza’s legacy is vivid because she was the first to participate in a Turing Test and held the title of the first-ever Chatbot. ELIZA inspired many Chatbots and AI programs that came after her.

Following ELIZA’s positive impact, Joseph wrote his book “Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation.” Harvard University describes ELIZA as one of the earliest realizations of Turing’s ideas.

Eliza was a groundbreaking milestone in the field of AI. ELIZA was also referenced numerous times in pop culture, including mentions in video games, movies, graphic novels, and even anime series. ELIZA also met another AI program after ICCC 1972, PARRY, which was an AI program meant to stimulate a schizophrenia patient.

Philosophical Notions about Artificial Intelligence

Following the success of ELIZA, Joseph turned his attention towards the philosophy of AI. In his book, Joseph says that computers are fundamentally limited in their capabilities. He puts forth his opinion that anthropomorphic views of computers are merely the reduction of human nature or any other life form.

Furthermore, in his interview with MIT’s “The Tech”, Joseph expressed his fears about Artificial Intelligence. He expanded upon his fears of Artificial intelligence and presented his opinion about society with advanced computers; his subject of critique was the computer itself.

Joseph explained that a computer is largely a conservative force, and instead of moving our society forward, it could hinder social progress in many ways. Joseph provided his experience with Bank of America as an anecdote.

Joseph elaborated that even though computers allowed America’s bank to manage their check processing and to bookkeep more effectively, it also prevented a re-haul of the system. Joseph explained that the difficulty in handling the overload of checks would have otherwise changed the system, I.e., decentralized it.

The Deciding and Choosing Distinction

Joseph worked alongside computers and Artificial intelligence for many years but had his fears about the integration of computers in human societies and expected machines to harm human societies.

The book he wrote in 1976, “Computer Power and Human Reason,” justified his views. In his book, Joseph explained that even though artificial intelligence can be realized, it still can’t replace actual human intelligence.

Joseph elaborated that humans should never allow machines to make important decisions because they lack distinct human qualities such as compassion, wisdom, love, and care while they can decide on a certain decision based on internal processes and probabilistic methodologies.

Joseph Weizenbaum called mechanistic decision-making an act of deciding, which is a purely computational activity and can be programmed ultimately. Joseph calls the latter, the human act of decision-making as an act of choosing which is carried out ultimately by human judgment and by taking into account humans rather than mathematical factors.

For Joseph Weizenbaum, the act of deciding and choosing was the fundamental difference between humans and machines.

Death and Legacy

Joseph returned to his homeland, Berlin, in 1996 and spent the rest of his life there. A German documentary, “Weizenbaum! Rebel at work,” was released in 2007 and was dubbed in English. Until his death, Joseph held many academic appointments at Harvard, Stanford, and other universities.

Joseph was the creator of SLP programming language, Chatbots, and indeed a father of Artificial intelligence. Joseph died on 5th March 2008, and his remains lay buried at the Weibensee Cemetery in Berlin.

The Weizenmaum Award, named in his honor, was established in 2008 by the International Society for Ethics and Information Technology or INSEIT. It is officially named the INSEIT / Joseph Weizenbaum Award in Information and Computer Ethics, and is handed out every two years to the individual who has “made a significant contribution to the field of information and computer ethics, through his or her research, service, and vision.” It was first handed out in 2009.

In Closing

Joseph Weizenbaum would be an important figure in the history of computing even without the creation of the ELIZA Chatbot. His work with GE, particularly the creation of ERMA, led to the automation of the industry and eventually to online banking. His insights into Artificial Intelligence and the need to develop the technology ethically is one of the reasons he is considered one of the founding fathers of AI.

But ELIZA is the reason he’s on this website. Weizenbaum created the first chatbot, and that single development led to everything else in the chatbot world.

We hope that the blog was informative, and we’re looking
forward to reading your thoughts in the comments.

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