ELIZA: A Family History of the Counseling ComputerCounseling

Meet ELIZA: And Please be Polite! Using simple keyword associations, the ELIZA program can assess statements and questions typed onto a computer screen by a human user, and it returns seemingly intelligent responses. For example:

Anthony: I am depressed
ELIZA: Do you think coming here will help you not to be depressed?
Anthony: I hope so.
ELIZA: Can you elaborate on that?

Though the technology is simple, ELIZA’s statements and dialogue are so intuitively on key with the user’s, some can be tricked into thinking they are talking to a real person.

To illustrate ELIZA’s abilities and limitations, the following is an (abbreviated) interview between ELIZA and a State University of New York professor, acting the role of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Hamlet Talks to ELIZA

ELIZA: speak up! hit 2 returns after typing
Hamlet: my name is Hamlet
ELIZA: i am not interested in names
Hamlet: i am the Prince of Denmark
ELIZA: is it because you are the Prince of Denmark that you came to me
Hamlet: yes, my father has been most foully murdered
ELIZA: you’re being somewhat short with me
Hamlet: sorry
ELIZA: please don’t apologize
Hamlet: my father has been assassinated
ELIZA: tell me more about your family
Hamlet: my uncle killed him and married my mother
ELIZA: who else in your family
Hamlet: there is no one else
ELIZA: suppose there were not no one else
Hamlet: then i would not have to avenge my father’s death
ELIZA: your father’s death
Hamlet: my father’s murder
ELIZA: why do you say your father’s murder
Hamlet: because my father’s ghost told me it was murder
ELIZA: does that suggest anything else which belongs to you
Hamlet: nothing belongs to me-i am totally alienated
ELIZA: you say nothing belongs to you-you are totally alienated
Hamlet: i cannot act
ELIZA: how do you know you can’t act
Hamlet: i never tried
ELIZA: can you elaborate on that
Hamlet: i don’t know whether i should act or not
ELIZA: don’t you really know whether you should act or not
Hamlet: to be or not to be, that is the question
ELIZA: perhaps that really is the question
Hamlet: to sleep, perchance to dream
ELIZA: what does that dream suggest to you
Hamlet: freedom from having to decide whether to act
ELIZA: i am not sure i understand you fully
Hamlet: many people don’t
ELIZA: earlier you said your father has been assassinated
Hamlet: he was sleeping in the garden, and my uncle poured poison in his ear
ELIZA: please go on
Hamlet: then my uncle usurped the throne and married my mother
ELIZA: your mother
Hamlet: she must have been in on the plot
ELIZA: what does that suggest to you
Hamlet: that she’s not very nice
ELIZA: but your uncle killed him and married your mother
Hamlet: he’s not very nice either
ELIZA: do you feel strongly about discussing such things
… [text removed for brevity]
ELIZA: perhaps youd rather talk about something else
Hamlet: no, goodbye.
ELIZA: your bill will be in the mail18

ELIZA’s Family Discord

Kenneth Mark Colby — a psychiatrist from Stanford University — worked in tandem with a man named Weizenbaum (from MIT) on ELIZA, but as legend has it the two differed bitterly in regards to the potential of the software. Weizenbaum contended that psychotherapy could only take place in-person, between two humans, while Colby asserted that ELIZA (or another, more advanced program) could someday replace a real-life therapist. Hence, the gentlemen parted ways and only Colby carried on in the development of the software, eventually creating ELIZA’s big brother PARRY, in 1975. A more robust program, PARRY could better track a conversation, as well as ‘his’ own emotional state. When it was tested, the PARRY software was programmed to mimic the behavior of a paranoid psychiatric patient, and during testing, neither researchers nor psychiatrists could differentiate PARRY from a real paranoid person.19

Of course, the artificial intelligence of these programs has continued to develop over the last 30-plus years. Today, programs such as DAVE (who helps persons learn English) and ALICE (a product of the Artificial Intelligence Foundation) can respond with auditory speech, are more intelligent than ELIZA or PARRY, and put up with less derogatory comments from users! For example, ask ALICE what her favorite color is and you’ll receive a polite, albeit odd, reply, “My favorite color is transparent.” (Note: ELIZA answers, “What about your own favorite color?”). However, ask ALICE, “Will you go on a date with me?” and she will respond accordingly, “I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it.” Use profanity, and she might reply something like, “That kind of language will get you nowhere.”

18 Rapaport, W. J. (2002). Hamlet talks to DOCTOR ELIZA. Department of Computer Science nd Engineering, Department of Philosophy, & Center for Cognitive Science, State University of New York at Buffalo, Retrieved online from

19 Grohol, J. (2004). A historical perspective, In R. Kraus, J. Zack, G. Strickler (Eds). Online counseling: A handbook for mental health professionals, USA: Elsevier Academic Press; Information originiating from a personal communication between Colby and Grohol,  April 1999.

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