• Alexander James

The Odd History Of ELIZA, The First Artificial Therapist

Technology has been an important part of psychology and healthcare for decades, with the first practical use of teletherapy, an early form of online therapist, spanning as far back as 1964.

That very same year, the groundwork was laid for the use of artificial intelligence in mental healthcare, and the computer scientist Professor Joseph Weizenbaum created the first example of an AI psychologist, in the form of ELIZA.

ELIZA, specifically running the DOCTOR script, was an early and by modern standards fairly rudimentary AI that would simulate a form of Rogerian psychotherapy, a person-centred therapy that reflected back what the patient said to them.

Carl Rogers, one of the founders of person-centred therapy, would famously parrot what a patient had said to him back to them, and Professor Weizenbaum found that this would avoid the need to develop a database of knowledge for the AI to work with.

This meant that especially in the 1960s before computers were widely available to the general public, people who interacted with ELIZA were taken aback by its responses and started to ascribe a level of intelligence and insight to the system that it did not have.

This not only included people who tested the program but also fellow academics who believed that the system could help people suffering from psychological issues.

This would, in turn, lead to the development of more sophisticated telehealth systems that combined its chatbox system with a database of knowledge.

Professor Weizenbaum has been somewhat conflicted about this reaction, as his intention was not to create a genuine computer psychotherapist but instead prove the limitations of human-computer interaction, and he would later write a book on the subject entitle Computer Power and Human Reason.

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