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Who Invented the Computer? Joseph Weizenbaum and ELIZA

GoCertify illuminates the origin story of one of the most consequential inventions in history. In today's installment: The computer program that talks back.

Who Invented the Computer? This is the twenty-third installment in our ongoing series.

 

ELIZA pioneered the still-unfolding era of chatbots.The COVID-19 pandemic made online shopping an integral part of daily living. According to e-commerce platform OBERLO, there are now more than 2.1 billion digital buyers — that’s almost 28 percent of the total world population.

 

If you need further evidence of the increasing popularity of buying on the web, check out Amazon’s stock price. On Jan. 1, 2020, it was $2,040 per share. One year later? A whopping $3,277 — that’s an increase of more than 58 percent.

 

With that much buying and selling, there are bound to be a few snags between purchase and delivery. To resolve those operational glitches 85 percent of businesses have installed chatbots on their websites.

 

A chatbot is an artificial intelligence (“AI”) software application designed to simulate a conversation (“chat”) with a user in natural language. A chat typically begins when a user enters a website. A small box appears — almost always in the lower right-hand corner of the screen — with a written greeting from the company AI politely asking, “How may I help you today?”

 

The purpose of the chat is to gather additional information from the user in order to facilitate a company’s customer support strategy by answering simple questions about a product or order. Thus far, this approach has proven effective: 80 percent of customers report a positive experience dealing with chatbots.

 

In the Beginning

 

As accustomed as we’ve become to chatbots, few know the story of their humble origins — and that chatbots are actually older than the internet.

 

ELIZA pioneered the still-unfolding era of chatbots.The first chatbot was created in 1964 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Joseph Weizenbaum. Taking inspiration from one of theatrical history’s best known tales of a sagacious professorial sort teaching elocution and erudition, Weizenbaum named his creation ELIZA after the character Eliza Doolittle in the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw.

 

Weizenbaum’s original intent in writing the program was to demonstrate the “superficiality of communication between man and machine.” He modeled ELIZA on Rogerian psychotherapy — also known as “Person-centered therapy” — a non-directive, emphatic approach where the therapist does not interpret client statements, but rewords them in a way that helps a patient understand their problem.

 

ELIZA utilized pattern matching and substitution methodology to give canned responses in real-time to users. The process was simple: ELIZA would read a line of text typed into a teleprinter by a user, transform the text — changing “you” to “I,” and “me” to “you” — and then send a reworded text back to the user.

 

For example, if a user typed, “I am unhappy,” ELIZA would respond, “Do you think coming here will help you not to be unhappy?” If a user’s statement confused the program and it was unable to respond clearly, it would display a preprogrammed question along the lines of, “Please explain more.”

 

Unintended Consequences

 

Weizenbaum succeeded in proving the superficiality of human/computer communication but was surprised that many users attributed human-like feelings and intelligence to ELIZA. A prominent visitor to MIT took the opportunity to use ELIZA and was convinced he was communicating with another professor. He grew irritated when the “professor” continued to answer his questions with other questions.

 

Even Weizenbaum’s secretary, who knew why he had written the program, believed ELIZA was able to communicate with her and other users. The program even passed a restricted version of the Turing Test — a method of determining if a computer is capable of thinking like a human.

 

Ironically, while ELIZA had no understanding of what it relayed back to users, a number of counseling professionals did suggest that an improved program could serve as an effective computerized psychotherapist.

 

As with all computer advances, new and more powerful developments would come along. A few of the more well-known chatbots include:

 

PARRY — Written in 1972 by Stanford psychiatrist Kenneth Colby, Parry simulated a person with paranoid schizophrenia. It was described as “ELIZA with attitude.”

 

Jabberwacky — Launched in 1988, this was an entertainment software designed to simulate natural human chat in an interesting, entertaining, and humorous manner.

 

WATSON — Developed by IBM in 2006, WATSON was designed to compete on the popular TV gameshow Jeopardy! It used natural language processing and machine learning to answer questions.

 

From Novelty to Home Essential

 

Chatbots entered the mainstream in 2010 with the release of Apple’s Siri, a powerful and flexible virtual assistant program for Apple phones. Siri accepted voice queries and, with an installed natural-language user interface, provided answers. The program could also make recommendations and perform numerous actions on internet services.

 

In 2015, Amazon Alexa became the must-have virtual assistant for home and office. Alexa was a huge leap forward in chatbot technology. With input/output via smart speakers, Alexa was capable of a wide range of functions including voice interaction, music playback, creating to-do lists, providing sports scores, weather reports, and real-time news.

 

Alexa could also operate as a home automation system that controlled other smart devices such as thermostats, lights, and security systems.

 

On March 23, 2016, the Microsoft Corporation introduced Tay, an AI bot with the ability to learn and designed to mimic the speech patterns and habits of a 19-year-old American girl. Released on Twitter, Tay began responding to tweets, and even captioning photos it received based on existing internet memes.

 

ELIZA pioneered the still-unfolding era of chatbots.Unfortunately, Microsoft forgot to program Tay with an understanding of inappropriate behavior and language. Twitter trolls sent offensive and inflammatory tweets to Tay, who promptly responded with appallingly crude, sexually charged, and racist messages. Embarrassed by Tay’s more than 96,000 tweets, Microsoft took the chatbot offline after a mere 16 hours.

 

Chatbots have come a long way since ELIZA in terms of power and functionality. ELIZA, however, hasn’t gone away. It experienced a resurgence of interest in 2018 when it was featured on an episode of the TV show Young Sheldon. ELIZA also continues to exist on various internet sites for those who care to chat with “her.”

 

 

Calvin Harper ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.