Joseph Weizenbaum — creator of the Eliza chatterbot and author of “Computer Power and Human Reason” — passed away recently. Running through all the obits was a quote that seemed to summarize this computing pioneer’s critical perspective on technology:
The Internet is like one of those garbage dumps outside of Bombay. There are people, most unfortunately, crawling all over it, and maybe they find a bit of aluminum, or perhaps something they can sell. But mainly it’s garbage.
The original quotation was in a New York Times article from 1999. But it’s not the whole story.
Weizenbaum wrote a letter to the Times after the article appeared:
I did say that, but I went on to say, “There are gold mines and pearls in there that a person trained to design good questions can find.”
Amazing what a little context can do!
Interestingly, although Weizenbaum’s critique of computing centers on the limitations of algorithmic problem-solving, it was Google’s pattern-matching prowess that unearthed this connection for me. I’d never have found it on my own.
Weizenbaum, whose family fled Nazi Germany in the ’30s, was right to urge us not to discount the value of the human compass in navigating our lives, and not to abdicate our judgment to machines. But I think he might have been a little too ready to dismiss the ability of machines to help us find informational gold and contextual pearls.
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