Rafael Capurro


Keynote for the CEPE/IACAP Joint Conference 2021: The Philosophy and Ethics of Artificial Intelligence,  Hamburg, Germany, 5-9 July, 2021 on the occasion of the INSEIT / Joseph Weizenbaum Award in Information and Computer Ethics, 2020.

Published in: FIfF Kommunikation 4/2022, 26-29. Spanish translation.




Who is Joseph Weizenbaum? He was born on January 8, 1923 in Berlin where he went to the Luisenstädtisches Realgymnasium. Joseph, his brother Heinrich (1921-2005), and their parents Jechiel and Henriette fled in January 1936 from the antisemitic terror of Nazi Germany to the United States. He studied mathematics at Wayne State University in Detroit and worked as a meteorologist for the US Army from 1942 until 1945. After the war he finished his Master's degree in 1950 and worked as a system engineer at the Computer Development Laboratory of the General Electric Corporation. Alan Turing formulated his test in 1950 and John McCarthy used the name "Artificial Intelligence" for dealing with the issue of thinking machines at the Dartmouth Conference in 1955. In 1963 Joseph Weizenbaum became Associate Professor and in 1970 Professor of Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Between 1964 and 1966 he created ELIZA, a natural language processing computer programme driven by a script named DOCTOR that simulated a psychiatric interview in the conversational style of the Psychologist Carl Rogers. The name Eliza refers to Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion" (1913) also famous as "The Flower Girl" in the musical "My Fair Lady" with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in 1956. Between 1966 and 1976, the publication year of "Computer Science and Human Reason: From Judgement to Calculation" (Weizenbaum 1976), he became ethically sceptic about computer technology not only because, as he remarks, ELIZA was taken seriously by psychiatrists instead as an example of a dialogue with the computer, but also because of the impact of this technology during the Vietnam war (Weizenbaum 1984). His Stanford colleagues Bruce C. Buchanan, Joshua Lederberg and particularly John McCarthy were not amused by the book and wrote critical reviews (Buchanan, Lederberg, McCarthy 1976). In his answer to McCarthy's review Weizenbaum writes:

Finally, McCarthy asserts "Philosophical and moral thinking has never found a model of man that relates human beliefs to the physical world in a plausible way." Only someone who has mastered the entire philosophical and moral literature could have the authority to say that. What truly God-like humility! The distance that separates John McCarthy from Joseph Weizenbaum is truly measured by the challenges these two hurl at one another: McCarthy defies Weizenbaum to "Show me a way to knowledge besides science!" And Weizenbaum responds: "Can there be a way toward an authentic model of man that does not include and ultimately rest on philosophical and moral thinking?" No wonder we talk past another. (Weizenbaum 1976a, 28)

Weizenbaum turned from Saul to Paul, or, as he says, into an academic "heretic" ("Ketzer") or "dissident" ("Dissident"). This turn had roots in his personal history in Nazi Germany and of what he calls "Jewish antisemitism," i.e. the hostility of German Jews towards often poor or very traditional fellow believers from Eastern Europe. He took this experience with him to the US. Being confronted with racism there he became an ally of the black people  (Weizenbaum 1984, Weizenbaum 1987).  Who is Joseph Weizenbaum? He is a parrhesiastes in the digital age.

Being a Parrhesiastes

I use the concept of parrhesiastes in the sense analyzed by Michel Foucault in his 1983 lectures at the University of California at Berkeley "Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia" (Foucault 1983). Who is a parrhesiastes?

He — and in the Greek political tradition it is important to be aware of the gender difference— is the one who speaks a truth that might be dangerous for him. How can the other be sure that the speaker is a 'truth speaker'? And how can he or she be sure that what the speaker believes to be the truth, is, in fact, the truth? The first question was important in ancient Greece. It was answered, according to Foucault, by Plutarch and Galen. The second question is a modern one. It belongs to a culture based on freedom of speech in the sense of a universal right to communicate as different to the right of an individual. Parrhesia belongs to the Western tradition of direct speech whereas in the Far East the tradition of indirect speech prevails (Capurro 2010). "Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgement to Calculation" is a parrhesiastic title, provocative in the sense of calling forth or challenging what might be and in fact was seen by his Stanford colleagues as a distortion, exaggeration and eventually, paradoxically, as irrational. Weizenbaum questions the powerful form of human reason as computation in the name of human reason as the capability to judge and criticize its ambitions and obsessions. He speaks out his parrhesiastic truth in the name of a less powerful but not less important form of the self-understanding of humans asking themselves about their humanness. Human reason understood in contrast to computer reason is that which remains hidden when the perspective of computation is taken for granted as being the truth about human reason and about being human tout court. Weizenbaum makes a shift from the perspective of computer language and of language as to be mastered by computation, to the ethical question about who and not what we are. This shift allows him to see computation as reductionist with all the problems that any reductionism implies if it is not judged as such. This happens when judgement transforming into the level of computation is not able to be seen as such. The identity obliterates the difference. Reason as computation turns into reason is computation. Weizenbaum questions the purport inherent in this as well as in any identity by speaking out the truth about their difference. He puts it parrhesiastically in the last paragraph of his book as follows:

If the teacher, if anyone, is to be an example of a whole person to others, he must first strive to be a whole person. Without the courage to confront one's inner as well as one's outer worlds, such wholeness is impossible to achieve. Instrumental reason alone cannot lead to it. And there precisely is a crucial difference between man and machine: Man, in order to become a whole, must be forever an explorer of both, his inner and his outer realities. His life is full of risks, but risks he has the courage to accept, because, like the explorer, he learns to trust his own capacities to endure, to overcome. What could it mean to speak of risk, courage, trust, endurance, and overcoming when one speaks of machines? (Weizenbaum 1976, 280)

Weizenbaum became aware of the between the "inner life" of people and a computer programme which is the fundamental ethical difference between who and what (Capurro et al. 2013).

The first sentence of his Preface is no less parrhesiastic:

This book is only nominally about computers. In an important sense, the computer is used here merely as a vehicle for moving certain ideas that are much more important than computers. (Weizenbaum 1975, ix)

At the end of Chapter 8 he puts this message explicitly:

There have been many debates on "Computers and Mind." What I conclude here is that the relevant issues are neither technological nor even mathematical; they are ethical. They cannot be settled by asking questions beginning with "can." The limits of the applicability of computers are ultimately statable only in terms of oughts. What emerges as the most elementary insight is that, since we do not now have any ways of making computers wise, we ought not now give computers tasks that demand wisdom. (Weizenbaum 1975, 227; Weizenbaum 1987; Capurro 1995, 95).

Should we ever be able to make not just intelligent but wise machines, they might mutate into another species as imagined by Stanisław Lem in his novel "Golem XIV" (Lem 1984; Capurro 1995, 81). Facing the stupidity of the Pentagon —today's military-industrial-digital complex— trying to instrumentalize the supercomputers Golem —an acronym for "Governments Lamentable Expense of Money"—and Brave Annie, it comes to a struggle. Professor A. Hyssen says that the "highest intelligence" cannot be the "humblest slave" and General S. Walker tries to damage Supermaster when it declares that "geopolitical problems were nothing compared with ontological ones, and that the best guarantee of peace is universal disarmament." (translated from Lem 1984, 21; Capurro / Marsiske 2012, 28-29).


Learning from Joseph Weizenbaum

Following paths of thought by Joseph Weizenbaum and Hubert Dreyfus, I suggested that this kind of cyber-mythology or cybergnosis has an anthropological root as far as it aims at filling the void left by the metaphysics of 'higher intelligences' or 'intelligentiae separatae' mediating between humans and God (Capurro 1995, 78-96). Separated from what? From matter and death, of course. "Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin," thought Alice; "but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!" (Carroll 1960, 91; Capurro 1993).

Two years after the publication of "Computer Power and Human Reason" in a contribution to the book edited by Michael L. Dertouzos and Joel Moses "The Computer Age: A Twenty-Year View" with the title "Once More: The Computer Revolution" —some people became aware in 1979 "once more" of the computer revolution— Weizenbaum writes:

Who is the beneficiary of our much-advertised technological progress and who are the victims? What limits ought we, the people generally and scientists and engineers particularly, to impose on the application of computation to human affairs? What is the impact of the computer, not only on the economies of the world or on the war potential of nations and so on, but on the self-image of human beings and on human dignity? What irreversible forces is our worship of high technology, symbolized most starkly by the computer, bringing into play? Will our children be able to live with the world we are here and now constructing? Much depends on answers to these questions. (Weizenbaum 1979, 457)

Weizebaum's questions from 1979 were the matter of my paper "On Computer Ethics. Ethical Issues of Information Society" ("Zur Computerethik. Ethische Fragen der Informationsgesellschaft" (Capurro 1987). It was one of my first papers on ethics and information technology and the first dealing with Weizenbaum. Computer ethics was an emerging field that did not seem to be highly relevant. Its origins go back to Norbert Wiener's "The Human Use of Human Beings" (Wiener 1950; Bynum 2008). I put the questions addressed by Weizenbaum under the headings "The Computer and Responsibility," "Private and Public," and "The Computer and Power." In "The Computer and Responsibility" I referred to Sherry Turkle's "The Second Self" (Turkle 1984) on the impact of computers on human self-understanding. Privacy was at that time an emerging issue that was discussed, particularly in Germany, under the label of data protection. I referred to Hannah Arendt (Arendt 1983) as well as to Stephan Schwarz (Schwarz 1979) who invited me 1985 to give a lecture on "Moral issues of Information Science" at the Royal Institute of Technology Library in Stockholm (Capurro 1985). Schwarz was intrigued by my research on ethical issues of scientific information and communication (Capurro 1981) and particularly by a paper with the lawyer Gert Runge dealing with ethical and legal data protection issues in which we quoted Schwarz (Runge / Capurro 1982). It was evident for me that a future computer ethics should deal with this matter (Capurro 1987, 265). Eventually, the issue of "The Computer and Power" was at the core of Weizenbaum's thinking; he warned about the danger of centralized computer power particularly in totalitarian states. The so-called computer revolution was not necessarily revolutionary progress towards the better but could have reactionary effects.

Weizenbaum's question about who the beneficiaries are and who the victims of "our much-advertised technological progress" opened my eyes to the ethical issues of computer power in the so-called Third World. I referred to the exclusion of "the other" with reference to Emmanuel Lévinas' seminal work "Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority" (Lévinas 1969; Capurro 1987, 268). All these issues concerned not only a deontology for computer experts but ethical issues of information technology in the society at large. Both aspects were at the core of Weizenbaum's thinking and of his public engagement as a parrhesiastes in the digital age. Hans Jonas put the issue of responsibility at the core of his book "The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of Ethics for the Technological Age" (Jonas 1979). At the international level, ethical issues of information and communication were addressed by the controversial MacBride Report "Many Voices – One World" (MacBride 1980). Fifteen years later ITU and UNESCO organized the World Summit on the Information Society.

In 1988 I reflected on "The Responsibility of Thinking" ("Die Verantwortbarkeit des Denkens") with regard to ethical issues of Artificial Intelligence raised by Weizenbaum that were dealt with also by scientists and philosophers such as Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, Günther Anders, Margaret Boden, Hubert Dreyfus, and Christiane Floyd (Capurro 1988). The Austrian computer scientist Christiane Floyd and Weizenbaum were co-founders of the Forum Computer Scientists for Peace and Social Responsibility ("Forum InformatikerInnen für Frieden und gesellschaftliche Verantwortung," FIfF)  in 1984. In 1978 Christiane Floyd became a full professor of software engineering at the Technical University of Berlin. She was the first woman to be a professor in computer science in Germany. She raised the question about the limits of a responsible use of computers (Floyd 1985) and proposed, in a seminal paper in 1991, the following "Ethical Guidelines for Design – A Suggestion"

Observe a human measure

Place humans above technology

Foster community between human beings

Enable humans to act responsibly

Use technology to promote life

Respect human bodily nature

Enhance human potential and faculties

Make truthful claims about technology

Strengthen human autonomy

Enrich human work

(Floyd 1991/2011, 54)

All three of us met at a meeting organized by the Institute of Informatics at Zürich University in 1992 on the occasion of the creation of a group "Informatics and Society" by the Swiss Informatics Society. Weizenbaum asked: "Why critical thinking in computer science?" ("Warum kritisches Denken in der Informatik?") and said: "It is astonishing that the question has to be stated at all" ("Es ist erstaunlich, dass die Frage überhaupt gestellt werden muss") (Weizenbaum 1992, 1; Weizenbaum 1987; Capurro 1992).


Joseph Weizenbaum came back to Germany in 1996, the country and language that he and his family were forced to leave. It resulted for him, I believe, in an existential and academic katharsis that had a big impact not only in the computer science community but also in the public domain in this country that was also his country. He gave to computer scientists, politicians and the public critical words of freedom and responsibility raising awareness about the potential dangers of information technology until his death in 2008 (Weizenbaum 2001). He was awarded with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (Großes Bundesverdienstkreuz) in 2001 and became honorary member of the German Informatics Society in 2003. He received the honoris causa doctorate from Hamburg University in 2003 (Oberquelle 2003). The Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society (Deutsches Internet-Institut) was created in Berlin 2017. He is among us.

I thank the INSEIT jury for this award and I thank Joseph Weizenbaum for giving to "airy nothing," i.e., to my thinking about ethics and information technology, "a local habitation and a name." (W. Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V, Scene 1)


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I thank Jared Bielby (Canada) for text editing.

Last update: March 25, 2023


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