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Why People Demanded Privacy to Confide in the World’s First Chatbot

In 1966, the Eliza program couldn’t say much—but it was enough

4 min read
Computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum with his chatbot Eliza, running on an IBM 36-bit IBM 7094 mainframe computer.
Computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum with his chatbot Eliza, running on a 36-bit IBM 7094 mainframe computer.
Photo-illustration: Gluekit

This is part four of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing.

Between 1964 and 1966, Joseph Weizenbaum, a German American computer scientist at MIT’s artificial intelligence lab, developed the first-ever chatbot [PDF].

While there were already some rudimentary digital language generators in existence—programs that could spit out somewhat coherent lines of text—Weizenbaum’s program was the first designed explicitly for interactions with humans. The user could type in some statement or set of statements in their normal language, press enter, and receive a response from the machine. As Weizenbaum explained, his program made “certain kinds of natural-language conversation between man and computer possible.”

He named the program Eliza after Eliza Doolittle, the working-class hero of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion who learns how to talk with an upper-class accent. The new Eliza was written for the 36-bit IBM 7094, an early transistorized mainframe computer, in a programming language that Weizenbaum developed called MAD-SLIP.

Because computer time was a valuable resource, Eliza could only be run via a time-sharing system; the user interacted with the program remotely via an electric typewriter and printer. When the user typed in a sentence and pressed enter, a message was sent to the mainframe computer. Eliza scanned the message for the presence of a keyword and used it in a new sentence to form a response that was sent back, printed out, and read by the user.

To encourage ongoing dialogue, Weizenbaum designed Eliza to simulate the type of conversational style used by a Rogerian psychoanalyst. The program would take something the user said and reflect it back with a question, as can be seen in the example below. (Notice how the program takes keywords like “boyfriend” and “depressed” and re-uses them.)

Human: Men are all alike.

Computer: IN WHAT WAY?

Human: They’re always bugging us about something or other.

Computer: CAN YOU THINK OF A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE?

Human: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

Computer: YOUR BOYFRIEND MADE YOU COME HERE

Human: He says I’m depressed much of the time.

Computer: I AM SORRY TO HEAR YOU ARE DEPRESSED

Human: It’s true. I am unhappy.

Weizenbaum chose this mode of dialogue for Eliza because it gave the impression that the computer understood what was being said without having to offer anything new to the conversation. It created the illusion of comprehension and engagement in a mere 200 lines of code.

To test Eliza’s capacity to engage an interlocutor, Weizenbaum invited students and colleagues into his office and let them chat with the machine while he looked on. He noticed, with some concern, that during their brief interactions with Eliza, many users began forming emotional attachments to the algorithm. They would open up to the machine and confess problems they were facing in their lives and relationships.

During their brief interactions with Eliza, many users began forming emotional attachments to the algorithm.

Even more surprising was that this sense of intimacy persisted even after Weizenbaum described how the machine worked and explained that it didn’t really understand anything that was being said. Weizenbaum was most troubled when his secretary, who had watched him build the program from scratch over many months, insisted that he leave the room so she could talk to Eliza in private.

For Weizenbaum, this experiment with Eliza made him question an idea that Alan Turing had proposed in 1950 about machine intelligence. In his paper, entitled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Turing suggested that if a computer could conduct a convincingly human conversation in text, one could assume it was intelligent—an idea that became the basis of the famous Turing Test.

But Eliza demonstrated that convincing communication between a human and a machine could take place even if comprehension only flowed from one side: The simulation of intelligence, rather than intelligence itself, was enough to fool people. Weizenbaum called this the Eliza effect, and believed it was a type of “delusional thinking” that humanity would collectively suffer from in the digital age. This insight was a profound shock for Weizenbaum, and one that came to define his intellectual trajectory over the next decade.

The simulation of intelligence, rather than intelligence itself, was enough to fool people.

In 1976, he published Computing Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation [PDF], which offered a long meditation on why people are willing to believe that a simple machine might be able to understand their complex human emotions.

In this book, he argues that the Eliza effect signifies a broader pathology afflicting “modern man.” In a world conquered by science, technology, and capitalism, people had grown accustomed to viewing themselves as isolated cogs in a large and uncaring machine. In such a diminished social world, Weizenbaum reasoned, people had grown so desperate for connection that they put aside their reason and judgment in order to believe that a program could care about their problems.

Weizenbaum spent the rest of his life developing this humanistic critique of artificial intelligence and digital technology. His mission was to remind people that their machines were not as smart as they were often said to be. And that even though it sometimes appeared as though they could talk, they were never really listening.

This is the fourth installment of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing. Last week’s post described Andrey Markov and Claude Shannon’s painstaking efforts to create statistical models of language for text generation. Come back next Monday for part five, which describes the Microsoft’s disastrous 2016 experiment with a chatbot that learned the subtleties of language from Twitter. 

You can also check out our prior series on the untold history of AI.

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Will AI Steal Submarines’ Stealth?

Better detection will make the oceans transparent—and perhaps doom mutually assured destruction

11 min read
A photo of a submarine in the water under a partly cloudy sky.

The Virginia-class fast attack submarine USS Virginia cruises through the Mediterranean in 2010. Back then, it could effectively disappear just by diving.

U.S. Navy

Submarines are valued primarily for their ability to hide. The assurance that submarines would likely survive the first missile strike in a nuclear war and thus be able to respond by launching missiles in a second strike is key to the strategy of deterrence known as mutually assured destruction. Any new technology that might render the oceans effectively transparent, making it trivial to spot lurking submarines, could thus undermine the peace of the world. For nearly a century, naval engineers have striven to develop ever-faster, ever-quieter submarines. But they have worked just as hard at advancing a wide array of radar, sonar, and other technologies designed to detect, target, and eliminate enemy submarines.

The balance seemed to turn with the emergence of nuclear-powered submarines in the early 1960s. In a 2015 study for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, Bryan Clark, a naval specialist now at the Hudson Institute, noted that the ability of these boats to remain submerged for long periods of time made them “nearly impossible to find with radar and active sonar.” But even these stealthy submarines produce subtle, very-low-frequency noises that can be picked up from far away by networks of acoustic hydrophone arrays mounted to the seafloor.

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