Vision 97 foundation awards computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum

Joseph Weizenbaum (left), photo: CTK

On the 5th of October, President Vaclav Havel celebrated his 66th birthday. On the occasion the Vision 97 Foundation, established by President Havel and his wife Dagmar, awarded an annual prize that is given to outstanding scientists and thinkers whose work has significantly helped to broaden peoples' horizons while addressing the fundamental questions of human existence. This year the prize went to the German-born American computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum. Pavla Horakova was at the ceremony.

Joseph Weizenbaum  (left),  photo: CTK
Since its founding in 1999, the prize has been awarded to the American neurosurgeon Karl Pribram, the Italian historian, writer and thinker Umberto Eco, and the Czech scientist and philosopher Zdenek Neubauer. President Vaclav Havel explains why Joseph Weizenbaum was chosen this year.

"I believe that this year's winner suits well the meaning of our Prize. He is a man who was at the birth of computers and computer programmes but he is also a thinker. He emphasises the fact that computers - just like many other new inventions - increase our abilities. But they are in no way comparable to us. They have no body and no soul."

Joseph Weizenbaum was born in 1923 in Berlin but in 1935 his family escaped from Germany to the United States. He studied mathematics and participated in the construction of one of the first computers and the development of a programme language for it. Later he became Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over time Joseph Weizenbaum became more and more aware that people accepted new technology too blindly without considering all the consequences; this realisation led him to become a political activist and computer heretic. Computers for him became a symbol of modern science capable of leading humankind to disaster. In a speech given at the ceremony, Joseph Weizenbaum warned against modern technology and the spirit of our time.

"The zeitgeist, the spirit of the time has torn away from its anchor," Mr Weizenbaum said. "The only possible motto for our life remains: Against the spirit of the time! And that should be relevant not only these days but always."