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A classic text by the author who developed ELIZA, a natural-language processing system.


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A classic text by the author who developed ELIZA, a natural-language processing system.

30 review for Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation

  1. 4 out of 5

    William Li

    Probably the most important book that I misunderstood in college.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Kami Bee

    This was a book I really wanted to read after having heard much about it and, of course, played with ELIZA and 'her' successors (and produced my own paltry successor). I'm glad I made the effort to track it down. I really relate to Weizenbaum as a writer, because there are two clear sides to the way he approaches his topic. He starts by talking science in what is a quite accessible but no less technical manner. He quickly shows himself to be a person who, more than merely knowing the theories and This was a book I really wanted to read after having heard much about it and, of course, played with ELIZA and 'her' successors (and produced my own paltry successor). I'm glad I made the effort to track it down. I really relate to Weizenbaum as a writer, because there are two clear sides to the way he approaches his topic. He starts by talking science in what is a quite accessible but no less technical manner. He quickly shows himself to be a person who, more than merely knowing the theories and formulas, has integrated them mentally to a point where he can speak intelligently for a significant period of time, putting many things together in a way that builds something the average individual may have seen all their life, but would never recognise alone. He talks about our invention of timepieces, clocks. He eloquently demonstrates with this example and a few chapters what modern writers struggle to explain in a whole book: that our tools, our inventions, go on to shape who we are as individuals and as a species. Weizenbaum speaks comparatively little about ELIZA, the work that causes him to be frequently referenced to present times. Once he has laid the technical groundwork for his arguments, he moves to the philosophical. What motivated him to write this book was the realisation that so many had taken ELIZA so seriously and saw practical applications in the counselling arena, among others. Weizenbaum's perspective is that, while contentious areas of computer science research are not intrinsically bad, just because certain things can be done does not mean they should be done. His argument is reminiscent of, "don't we have people to do these things?" in Sherry Turkle's work with children on the place of technology in society - and I think she worked with Weizenbaum at some point. Rather than just opening the question, Weizenbaum pinpoints what he thinks is missing from discussions about technology and artificial intelligence: unabashed invocation of ethics and morals, and acknowledgement of the ways in which machines can never be men. It would be too difficult to summarise all the intricacies of Weizenbaum's argument, and indeed I doubt I fully understand most of them. The main thing I took away from the latter portions of the book was the realisation that, indeed, we do struggle, as intellectuals, to say, 'I simply think that it's wrong to do this.' As scientists we tend to consider beliefs and sensations as things that have nothing to do with science in their subjectivity. We seek the objectivity of logic. And yet what Weizenbaum seems to imply in so many ways is that logic, the clean-cut stuff we have used to build computers cannot express everything that is important about being human. I don't know yet where I stand on everything asserted in the book. I think it will take me a while to absorb all of it. What I think is really significant is that this book written in the seventies reads much like books on the same topic might today, only with far greater clarity than most. More than most now, Weizenbaum seems confident enough in his abilities to say that, sometimes, mere application of logic does not work.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Courtney

    In addition to walking down memory lane, reminiscing on my study of computer engineering, I enjoyed a technical, philosophical, as well as ethical treatment of artificial intelligence. I do like that Weizenbaum was willing to "just say no" to certain projects on a computer. And I truly felt his impassioned call toward personal responsibility in the last chapter. The one thing that played out very differently than Weizenbaum predicted was speech recognition. He felt it would be too expensive and n In addition to walking down memory lane, reminiscing on my study of computer engineering, I enjoyed a technical, philosophical, as well as ethical treatment of artificial intelligence. I do like that Weizenbaum was willing to "just say no" to certain projects on a computer. And I truly felt his impassioned call toward personal responsibility in the last chapter. The one thing that played out very differently than Weizenbaum predicted was speech recognition. He felt it would be too expensive and not add enough value. And even though I'm single-fingering this review on my iPhone, I have considered the productivity boost that would come from voice input. Weizenbaum's guiding voice would simply advise to assure that I contribute relevant content, and a reminder of this will be the persistent lesson from his book.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ask Franck

    Absolutely phenomenal. This opened my eyes to the ways of computers like nothing else. I have some basic coding experience, but this took my whole understanding to a new level. He is amazing at bridging the technical aspects with the philosophical, historical and personal.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Paul Berry

    A book too important to be read just once.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ed Finn

    Incredibly prescient given its date. A passionate argument for not forgetting our humanity in the face of the allure of computation.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Alex Railean

    I really enjoyed this one, it covers the problem from many aspects and the author places a great emphasis on the moral side of the issue too. Besides that, if you're interested in understanding how computers work - this is a good choice. If you liked "Code" by Charles Petzold, you will find some of the first chapters of this book familiar. I really enjoyed this one, it covers the problem from many aspects and the author places a great emphasis on the moral side of the issue too. Besides that, if you're interested in understanding how computers work - this is a good choice. If you liked "Code" by Charles Petzold, you will find some of the first chapters of this book familiar.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Graeme Roberts

    Archaic and not particularly interesting.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Lidbeck

    How much do you trust a computer? The answer to this question has probably changed somewhat since 1976, and the relevance of this book has slipped. Now they're all around us, they are commonplace, invasive. So, to appreciate Weizenbaum's book fully, get in a time machine--to a time when you needed to schedule time to be with a computer, the computer had a cabal-like group of attendants to help you make requests of it, and this computer had a presence--like a guru on a mountain, you came to it. No How much do you trust a computer? The answer to this question has probably changed somewhat since 1976, and the relevance of this book has slipped. Now they're all around us, they are commonplace, invasive. So, to appreciate Weizenbaum's book fully, get in a time machine--to a time when you needed to schedule time to be with a computer, the computer had a cabal-like group of attendants to help you make requests of it, and this computer had a presence--like a guru on a mountain, you came to it. Now then. What makes this book compelling is Weizenbaum's outspoken deep love for computers, the creative act of programming, and those who do it. He very nearly slips into the first person in the chapter where he describes the “compulsive programmer,” the poor soul who is driven by the desire--the need, actually--to create artificial minds. "It is a thrill to see a...program suddenly come back to life; there is no other way to say it." [120]. Weizenbaum is the author of the famous ELIZA program, a simple, elegant English-language parser which, for the course of a brief, casual conversation, might to carry on an intelligent conversation with the user. Its most popular function is that of a psychoanalyst, parroting its patients’ statements back in question form. (User: "I ate my bicycle." ELIZA (after several seconds of computation, no doubt): "Why do you think you ate your bicycle?") This silly program, ELIZA, has given Weizenbaum first-hand experience in observing the bizarre, irrational, and psychologically complex way ordinary humans interact with machines. He tells stories of laypeople who, even with a thorough understanding of how the program works--how each word in its output is determined solely by the human input--feel that ELIZA really, somehow, cares for them. Users actually requested private sessions with the program in order to discuss more personal matters. This is just human nature, though, our willingness to succumb to illusion. Weizenbaum's purpose in writing seems like a magician coming clean, showing his audience the secret compartments and trapdoors. Nothing supernatural here. He spends the first three chapters explaining computers, game theory, and Turing machines using extended metaphors, guiding his reader step-by-step through the processes by which a procedure (not the physical computer, but the essence of one) can 'think' and perform complex tasks. He emphasizes over and over how each action is fully deterministic; the computer can not ever choose to act or initiate any action itself. Weizenbaum gradually makes clear the purpose of this meticulous tour. The layman's perception of the computer as a sort of super-human (again, this is 1976) is beginning to have seriously dangerous consequences. Like the secretary who requested a private audience with ELIZA, government officials, psychologists, and bioengineers see the computer as having abilities beyond processing logic. Industry leaders push the computer as the most important innovation, ever: specifically promoting the idea that computers are less fallible than humans, and will ultimately be able to do anything humans can, faster and more accurately. While this technological optimism may have faded some since the '70s, there is something else Weizenbaum describes that is absolutely timeless: a fatalistic attitude towards progress. Scientists tell us that within so many years technology will be able to do such and such: fly an airplane, understand spoken English, integrate with animal brains and optic nerves to create new, hybrid life forms. We feel that the only real test of progress is its ability to amaze: "the validation of scientific knowledge has been reduced to the display of technological wonders" [265]. Weizenbaum loathes this state of affairs. Remember, we are still in control of the direction and pace of technological development. Scientists are pressing forward without regard for "higher" principles or the possibility that there exist things that we can, but perhaps should not, do. They all seem to have the innocence, the obliviousness, of the monomaniacal, compulsive programmers he has described earlier. This reactionary stance--the opposition to the amorality of science--is certainly not unique to Weizenbaum. But in combination with a loving look at computers, it makes this book unique. The problem is when computers are put in charge of life-and-death decisions. Weizenbaum cites many cases where people have come to a point of crisis and a major change needed to be made, some dealing with large segments of the population. The advent and hype of computer technology has convinced the decision-makers that what they need is to apply more computer power, replacing human tasks with machines which do the same. Our fundamental thinking here is wrong, he states. Instead of sitting down and trying to find a better way of doing things, using our human intuition and initiative, we now have the option of throwing technology blindly at the problem. For example: Instead of dealing with the problems related to America’s car obsession by, say, promoting mass transportation, computers have simply made the mass-production of vehicles the easiest solution. Instead of finding alternatives to going to war in Vietnam, we used computers to help automate the location of strategic targets and to convey information (and misinformation) from the front. Weizenbaum reaches the surprising conclusion that the invention of the computer has actually had a conservative effect on our nation’s systems: it has "immunized" us "against enormous pressures for change" [31]. Here's where Weizenbaum changes modes, and there's a problem with his moralizing assertions. He lays out what he believes technology should not ever do: it should never try to substitute computer power for a purely human function and it should never take upon itself a task unless it meets a human need not readily solvable any other way, and whose side effects are entirely foreseeable. The problem is that he provides no logic to support his thesis. Instead, he seems to think it should be obvious that to substitute mechanisms for human functions is "immoral." He does mention historical precedent--new technologies introduced for benign purposes seem to end up promoting warfare [269]. No longer is he the didactic professor of computers and language theories: he makes a passionate plea to his readers, computer scientists and teachers, to think for themselves. It is a reminder of free will. "People have chosen" to make things exactly the way they are today, and our choices will effect the future [273]. We are already thinking too much like our machines if we believe that the progress of society is a behavior as predetermined as the progress of a computer’s algorithm. Weizenbaum does not provide extensive logical proofs for his statements; nor would that be effective, considering that a fundamental part of his appeal, underlying the entire flow of the book, is that we have gone wrong by solely placing our faith in quantitative studies, numbers and logic. Hard science is not the only source of wisdom: he mentions J. S. Bach and Arthur Miller. It is a bit surprising that a computer scientist would endorse musicians and playwrights as sources of truth as valid as mathematical truth. But something about this humanistic message rings true: we are human beings, not calculators--and it's worked out pretty well for us so far. Our free will, creativity, intuition, and initiative are things that are exclusively human, can never be automated, and should be trusted and preserved. His audience and its attitude has probably shifted, as I said earlier--Weizenbaum expects his readers to be optimistic about computers’ increasing role in society and about scientists’ ability to make computers smarter and faster and more human-like. Well, maybe despite the mundaneness of computers and their accelerating intelligence, we still are. We have had more time to get bored. If anything, we are impatient for them to get get smarter. But smarter in making smaller decisions: whether to re-route us around an accident on the interstate, recommending a movie or a taco stand... these micro-decisions, multiplied, are directing the tides of human traffic, but maybe not in the way Weizenbaum observed. Weizenbaum describes centralized computing facilities where the programmers would work, and sometimes sleep. Perhaps this separation of computer scientists from the laity gave their work a sort of aura, but by now most of us do not even have to stand up to confront a computer. This proximity and familiarity with computers has helped us understand firsthand a truth that Weizenbaum describes in a more abstract way: computers are frustratingly impersonal, dependent, and about as understanding of human needs as an blender. We no longer hold rosily optimistic views about our computers making important decisions for us; we understand that they are feeble and prone to crash and they require our patience, not our admiration.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Hassan

    Profoundly prescient, required reading for anyone interested in a computer science that liberates rather than dehumanizes. The antidote to technological utopianism. Weizenbaum uses his considerable experience in the field and his vast stores of technological knowledge to make a series of cogent philosophical points about the potential uses of computers. He derides those that uses the vast power that computing has given us for petty and anti-human pursuits and gives us glimpses of a future where c Profoundly prescient, required reading for anyone interested in a computer science that liberates rather than dehumanizes. The antidote to technological utopianism. Weizenbaum uses his considerable experience in the field and his vast stores of technological knowledge to make a series of cogent philosophical points about the potential uses of computers. He derides those that uses the vast power that computing has given us for petty and anti-human pursuits and gives us glimpses of a future where computers help us to become more human. More than anyone I've read Weizenbaum understands that the computer is a mechanism for realizing philosophy. Those who approach it without a proper philosophical understanding of what they are doing are liable to simply exacerbate and complicate whatever problems we currently. The poorly read, misanthropic programmers that are churned out of technical institutes present a genuine threat to the sanctity of human life, a threat that Weizenbaum was able to identify 50 years ago. The computer is not a hammer, it's not a simple tool but rather something that has profoundly changed how we think, act and view the world. This is the book for understanding those changes and how they stem from the very essence of the computer. More than that, this is the book for understanding how to save computer science from simply being the plaything of tyrants and oligarchs.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Bergius

    Joseph Weizenbaum, der Erfinder des natürlichen Sprachprogrammes Eliza, zeigt in seinem Buch von 1978 die Vor- und Nachteile von künstlich agierenden Computern. Er plädiert für die Entmystifizierung von Technik und räumt mit vielen Vorurteilen auf. Meine Bachelorarbeit habe ich über das Thema der Künstlichen Intelligenz in der Autorschaft geschrieben, Computer die mit natürlicher Sprache agieren interessieren mich somit sehr, vorallem wenn der Verfasser des Buches so einen großen Meilenstein in Joseph Weizenbaum, der Erfinder des natürlichen Sprachprogrammes Eliza, zeigt in seinem Buch von 1978 die Vor- und Nachteile von künstlich agierenden Computern. Er plädiert für die Entmystifizierung von Technik und räumt mit vielen Vorurteilen auf. Meine Bachelorarbeit habe ich über das Thema der Künstlichen Intelligenz in der Autorschaft geschrieben, Computer die mit natürlicher Sprache agieren interessieren mich somit sehr, vorallem wenn der Verfasser des Buches so einen großen Meilenstein in der KI-Entwicklung gesetzt hat. Haben sich die Ansichten zu Computern und KI über die vergangenen Jahrzehnte signifikant verändert, oder ist das Buch immer noch genau so aktuell wie damals? So eine prägnante Abhandlung des Themas hatte ich mir von Richard David Prechts Buch "Künstliche Intelligenz und der Sinn des Lebens" gewünscht und wurde mit meiner Erwartung leider enttäuscht. Um so faszinierender, dass sich ein Buch von 1978 aktueller und technisch akkurater anfühlt. Joseph Weizenbaum war wirklich eine faszinierend Persönlichkeit, das Buch spiegelt das gekonnt wider. Wirklich eine faszinierende Lektüre zu einem Thema, welches aktueller kaum sein könnte.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Greg

    Phenomenal book. Inspiring and insightful, it reads as more relevant now than when it was originally published in the mid-1970s. It would be great if it could be published again—with footnotes about what is technologically out of date—and be made as required reading for anyone working in tech.

  13. 5 out of 5

    mm

    Between the introductory material on Turing machines & digital logic and the preachy moral & ethical ravings are some decent insights. I'd recommend RMS or Weapons of Math Destruction over this for the social implications of programming. Between the introductory material on Turing machines & digital logic and the preachy moral & ethical ravings are some decent insights. I'd recommend RMS or Weapons of Math Destruction over this for the social implications of programming.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Yan

    Super relevant and insightful read. It should be a required read in any CS colloquium, especially today!

  15. 5 out of 5

    Edd Albert

    very informative

  16. 5 out of 5

    Edriessen

    Perfect pacing. Great point. And amazingly relevant 43 years later. If you do anything related to computer science: read it.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Keith

    The people in our Lisp language class got to meet and go to lunch with him. I was impressed with his reasonableness.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Brad Needham

    This book is an indispensable piece of the history of Artificial Intelligence and formal criticisms of computing. It is certainly dated, both in its description of the whole of computer science (in the 1970s) and the author's predictions of what will be impossible or prohibitively expensive to compute, such as transcriptions of spoken sentences. I read and was impressed by this book when it was first published. Now that Artificial Intelligence and questions about its applications have come to the This book is an indispensable piece of the history of Artificial Intelligence and formal criticisms of computing. It is certainly dated, both in its description of the whole of computer science (in the 1970s) and the author's predictions of what will be impossible or prohibitively expensive to compute, such as transcriptions of spoken sentences. I read and was impressed by this book when it was first published. Now that Artificial Intelligence and questions about its applications have come to the fore again, I've re-read it, and found it still has much to say to the modern reader. The book is full of quotable and still-provocative statements and arguments about science, engineering, and society. On the negative side, everyone should take the author's advice and skip the optional chapters 2 and 3. They attempt to provide a theoretical background in computer science in way too small a space to be anything but confusing. Also, physical computers and the layers of abstraction in their operation have expanded so much since 1976 that chapter 3 in particular is almost quaint. Many of the computing examples in the book will be foreign to the modern reader; you may wish to skip or skim the extensive examples and simply read his narrative arguments. Also on the negative side, near the end of the book the author strays from his otherwise well-formed argument to simply rant about technology. To sum up, the thesis of the book is as strong and relevant today as it was when it was written: that science, and in particular computing, can produce a materialistic (in a philosophical sense) and mechanistic view of what it is to be human, with tragic consequences; also that "...however much intelligence computers may attain, now or in the future, theirs must always be an intelligence alien to genuine human problems and concerns."

  19. 4 out of 5

    David

    For me this is one of the most influential book for the practicing computer scientist. But really this is applicable to any field I guess. It outlines J.Weizenbaum's thoughts on the responsibility of each generation to carefully chose the set of problems they consider important enough to be tackled. Most importantly though he stresses the importance to refuse to work on problems that are unethical or morally unjustified. This resonates with me as I think that it is critically important to think and For me this is one of the most influential book for the practicing computer scientist. But really this is applicable to any field I guess. It outlines J.Weizenbaum's thoughts on the responsibility of each generation to carefully chose the set of problems they consider important enough to be tackled. Most importantly though he stresses the importance to refuse to work on problems that are unethical or morally unjustified. This resonates with me as I think that it is critically important to think and reflect the possible consequences of your own actions. Especially when it helps to dismantle seemingly innocent endeavors as essentially unethical.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jlawrence

    Interesting anti-artificial intelligence argument from one of the pioneers of AI (he developed that program ELIZA which simulates a psychiatrist that parrots back your responses to you -- if you messed with you computers in the 80s you likely played some variant of it). Was suggested in Godel, Escher, Bach as a important counter viewpoint, which is how I ended up reading it. Interesting anti-artificial intelligence argument from one of the pioneers of AI (he developed that program ELIZA which simulates a psychiatrist that parrots back your responses to you -- if you messed with you computers in the 80s you likely played some variant of it). Was suggested in Godel, Escher, Bach as a important counter viewpoint, which is how I ended up reading it.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    Having practiced computer model building for a while, I have often been perplexed by the way managers respond to these decision support tools. This book helps reveal the motivations and beliefs of those who would, if they could, make all quantitative analysis automatic and disconnected from the process of thinking. I have read this book twice and yet I think I still haven't completely grasped the point Weizenbaum is making about the the problems with the way computers execute their commands. Having practiced computer model building for a while, I have often been perplexed by the way managers respond to these decision support tools. This book helps reveal the motivations and beliefs of those who would, if they could, make all quantitative analysis automatic and disconnected from the process of thinking. I have read this book twice and yet I think I still haven't completely grasped the point Weizenbaum is making about the the problems with the way computers execute their commands.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ron

    Still relevant and thought provoking.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Doris Raines

    Great. Book. Where. Would. We. Be. Today. Without. Technology. And. Science. And. Computers.

  24. 5 out of 5

    to'c

    An old book. Pre-Internet. Pre-Web. Pre-ML. But still with quite a few important things to say.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Frizelle

  26. 5 out of 5

    ธีรวัฒน์ กทม

  27. 4 out of 5

    Tae

  28. 4 out of 5

    Michael Helvey

  29. 4 out of 5

    Matthias

  30. 5 out of 5

    Mark Miller

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