Joe Weizenbaum

Joseph Weizenbaum 1923 - 2008.

Joe Weizenbaum, pioneering and uncompromising computer scientist, passed away this last week. Weizenbaum wrote the computer program ELIZA, and was a relentless foe of oversimplifications of cognition and a defender of what it really means to think. Weizenbaum was a scientist and a thinker in the truest senses of the words.

I didn't really know Joe well, but we were acquaintances. One time, Joe told me the most wonderful story about his daughter. This is when Joe was at MIT and his daughter was about twelve. A colleague of his, an MIT mathematician, was over for dinner. (I forget who.)

Joe's daughter reached for last piece of bread. Joe said, "don’t take that." She asked why. Joe said, "because you don't take the last piece of bread." Joe's daughter sat silent for a minute.

"Then nobody can have any bread."

Silence around the table.

Finally, the mathematician couldn't restrain his curiosity as to how a twelve-year old would advance an induction proof. "Why?" he asked.

"Well," she said, "if you can't eat the last piece of bread, it isn't really the last piece...."

Joe's delight in this story was not just pride in his daughter, but the window it opened into one of his favorite subjects: the nature of human cognition. Joe will be missed. We'll miss the person, his utter lack of tolerance for convenient and comforting yet wrong explanations, and his unwillingness to keep his mouth politely shut in the face of bullshit.

More on Joe here and here. Terry Winograd's tribute to Joe on his winning the Norbert Wiener award is here.

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