January 5 – Seeing the Eliza

Today’s Factismal: Joseph Weizenbaum was born on January 8, 1923.

Odds are you’ve never heard of Joseph Weizenbaum. But it is almost certain that you are familiar with his work. If you have ever tried to navigate a phone tree in order to get to a real human being, played an interactive video game, cussed at asked Siri a question, you’ve used Weizenbaum’s work. And that is because he invented Eliza, the first artificial personality.

Weizenbaum wanted to do two things with his program. First, he wanted to make fun of “non-directional psychotherapy” as he felt that it was no better than arguing with an echo. Second, and more importantly, he wanted to demonstrate that a computer could interact with a person using natural-language (what you and I would call “plain English”). In that he succeeded brilliantly.

His new program, which he named Eliza after the character in Pygmalion by Shaw, was able to fool many of those who interacted with it to the extent that several refused to allow Weizenbaum or anyone else to see the transcripts of their conversations. Eliza went on to be the first program to pass the Turing Test and be confused with a real person.

Eliza (and most of the programs that have followed) work by using a simple parsing routine that looks for common English words and then matches the words with a response phrase based on a ranking hierarchy; if the program cannot find a suitable match, it substitutes a neutral response (e.g., “Why would you say that?” for Eliza, “I don’t understand” for most phone systems). For example, if you were to tell Eliza “I eat mangoes for lunch”, Eliza would reply “You say you eat mangoes for lunch ?”; if you substituted “bananas” for “mangoes”, then so would Eliza. But if you were to say “I eat computers for lunch”, Eliza would reply “Do computers worry you ?”

Once you understand how the programs work, it is possible to have a lot of fun with them. People have turned Eliza into an author, A insult comic, and even malware. If you have a device with Siri on it, there are any number of lists of silly questions to ask (the same is true for Google search, which is very Eliza-like in some of its responses).

And if you just want to relax and speak with the original, there are a number of versions available on the web:
http://www.chayden.net/eliza/Eliza.html (Classic Eliza)
http://www.princetonai.com/bot/bot.jsp (A more modern version that nearly passed the Turing Test)

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