Kami's Reviews > Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation

Computer Power and Human Reason by Joseph Weizenbaum
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's review
May 25, 12

it was amazing
bookshelves: essential-socially-aware-reading, research
Read in May, 2012

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.
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