Eliza: The electronic psychotherapist

July 27, 2018
by Mark Ollig

March 27, 1959, the Charles Schulz “Peanuts” cartoon strip showed Lucy dispensing advice from a small booth, with signs saying “Psychiatric Help 5¢” and “The Doctor Is In.”

Charlie Brown approached her booth and sat down on the small chair. He explained his “deep feelings of depression,” and asked, “What can I do about this?”

Lucy’s response: “Snap out of it! Five cents, please.”

In 1966, Dr. Joseph Weizenbaum, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), wrote a human-computer interaction software program he called Eliza.

Eliza acts as an electronic therapist. It analyzes sentence fragments while responding to and asking questions of a human.

Weizenbaum called the program Eliza because, “like the Eliza of ‘Pygmalion’ fame, it could be taught to speak increasingly well.”

“Pygmalion” is a 1913 play by George Bernard Shaw, and Eliza Doolittle is one of the characters.

To communicate with the Eliza program, a person types in their question or comment using lower-case lettering on a keyboard. The computer (Eliza) responds using all upper-case lettering.

Remember, this is 1966, and Eliza was coded to act as a natural language “empathic psychologist” processing program for engaging in a simple conversation with a human.

Eliza was one of the first chatbots.

“A chatbot is a computer program or an artificial intelligence which conducts a conversation via auditory or textual methods,” is one of the most commonly found descriptions of a chatbot.

Weizenbaum created a computer programming code language called Symmetric List Processor (SLIP) for writing the Eliza software program.

SLIP is an augmentation of the Formula Translation (FORTRAN) imperative scientific and computational computer programming language used with IBM computers beginning in the late 1950s.

Weizenbaum used an IBM 7094 mainframe computer for writing and interacting with the Eliza program.

The IBM 7094 was considered one of the most powerful computers of the 1960s.

It was first introduced in January 1962, and played an essential role during NASA’s Gemini and Apollo space programs.

The US Air Force also used IBM 7094 computers with its Ballistic Missile Early Warning System well into the 1980s.

However, I now digress back to Eliza.

Dr. Weizenbaum’s Eliza program was one of the first artificial intelligence (AI) programs for conversing with a human.

Dr. Weizenbaum is considered one of the fathers of AI.

Eliza is a machine-human interaction program which gives the illusion of intelligence.

This program has a direct lineage to today’s advanced AI talking robots.

“The first extensive script I prepared for Eliza was one that enabled it to parody the responses of a nondirective psychotherapist in an initial psychiatric interview. I chose this script because it enabled me to temporarily sidestep the problem of giving the program a database of real-world knowledge,” Dr. Weizenbaum said in 1976.

The syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote a San Antonio, TX newspaper article about Eliza Sept. 10, 1966.

Kilpatrick’s column was about a Harvard Review story of a “distraught young lady” conversing with Eliza, using an IBM computer.

The distraught young lady sat at the keyboard and began “talking” with Eliza.

She engaged the computer in a text conversation about her boyfriend, typing, “He notices I’m depressed much of the time.”

She typed using lower-case lettering, while the computer (Eliza) responded with all upper-case:

“Men are all alike.”


“Well, my boyfriend made me come here.”


“He says I’m depressed much of the time.”


A 1966 computer program appears to show empathy; expressing its sorrow towards this distraught young lady.

She then types about her unhappiness and need for help.

Eliza appears curious when it asks, “WHAT WOULD IT MEAN TO YOU IF YOU GOT SOME HELP?”

The distraught young lady replied it would perhaps help her get along with her mother.


The conversation ends with the now formerly distraught young lady feeling better about her situation, after discussing it with the Eliza computer program.

In 1980, the Eliza program was obtainable to the public.

“Eliza, an exercise in the simulation of artificial intelligence, is now available from Radio Shack for use on their TRS-80 microcomputer,” read a Feb. 17, 1980, Galveston, TX newspaper article.

I am currently reading a book Dr. Weizenbaum published in 1976, “Computer Power and Human Reason.”

What advice would Eliza have given to Charlie Brown regarding his “deep feelings of depression?”


Start your conversation with Eliza by visiting https://www.masswerk.at/eliza/.

Joseph Weizenbaum was born Jan. 8, 1923. He passed away March 5, 2008.

Don’t forget to stop by the Bits & Bytes weblog: https://bitscolumn.blogspot.com.

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