By Marlies van Eck, writing in a private capacity. Her doctoral research at Tilburg University concerned automated chain decisions and legal protection. She works for the Dutch Ministry of Finance.
Reading time: 2-3 minutes | Be sure to read the other articles in the Decent Digitisation series.
Comedian Jochem Myjer’s hilarious ‘School Excursion’ routine in his Yeee-Haa! cabaret show introduces us to country bumpkin Harm. Harm is confused. Life to him is like a magic show; it’s wonderful, but he doesn’t understand it one bit. His standard expression is ‘I just don’t get it’.
In his 1976 book Computer Power And Human Reason: From Judgement to Calculation, Joseph Weizenbaum wrote that human beings approach artificial intelligence with too much respect and conviction, even though we don’t understand it. He reached that conclusion after seeing how people responded to his ELIZA experiment, conducted between 1964 and 1966. Weizenbaum coded what we would today refer to as a chat bot, a computer program that allowed people to communicate with a computer. The program, which he called ELIZA, parodied a ‘real’ psychotherapist by repeating or asking follow-up questions. A sample conversation:
Men are all alike.
ELIZA: IN WHAT WAY
They’re always bugging us about something or other.
ELIZA: CAN YOU THINK OF A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE
Well, my boyfriend made me come here.
ELIZA: YOUR BOYFRIEND MADE YOU COME HERE
He says I’m depressed much of the time.
ELIZA: I AM SORRY TO HEAR YOU ARE DEPRESSED
It was patently clear to Weizenbaum that only a human being could help another human being resolve emotional issues. To his astonishment, however, the world beyond his lab embraced ELIZA with excitement. Various universities copied the program and it became famous across the United States. Weizenbaum was especially shocked at the enthusiasm of psychiatrists themselves, who felt that the program could be turned into an almost fully automated form of psychotherapy.