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  • Writer's pictureOzzie Paez

ChatGPT and the battle over ethics

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

The current arguments over ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer) hark back to those of two AI luminaries, MIT’s Joseph Weizenbaum (1923-2008) and Stanford’s John McCarthy (1927-2011). Weizenbaum, a Jew who escaped Nazi Germany to the United States with his parents, left his university studies to join the US Army during World War II. He was undoubtedly shaped by his academic training, work, and life experiences into a computer enthusiast, techno skeptic, and early AI ethicist. He rejected as immoral technologies that would exercise human choice, i.e., decisions with moral implications, and uses of AI that objectified humans and humanity by extension.

Weizenbaum was well known in the field of artificial intelligence as an MIT professor with parallel academic appointments to Harvard, Stanford, Bremen, and other leading universities. His work with early computers and computer research sensitized him to their potential to sidestep and corrupt the special role of humans, human reasoning, and ethics. He captured his concerns in Computer Power and Human Reason (1976), where he asserted that “Science promised man [humans] power. But as so often happens when people are seduced by promises of power ... the price actually paid is servitude and impotence.” [1]

John McCarthy, by contrast, was an enthusiastic promoter of computers and artificial intelligence who, in An Unreasonable Book (1976) [2] criticized Computer Power and Human Reason’s central argument as bombastic and moralistically incoherent. McCarthy’s concerns focused on Weizembaum’s position that, “certain research should not be done if it is based on or might result in an “obscene” picture of the world and man.” This, in McCarthy’s view, would invite intrusion and oversight of science by politicians and bureaucrats, something he expressly rejected.

I wonder how these giants from the early computer age would react to ChatGPT. Weizembaum might argue against the software’s capacity to create human-like content (art, literature, poetry…) without a human soul. McCarthy would likely be more enthusiastic, although his absolute belief in human intellectual freedom might have recoiled at the censorship integrated into ChatGPT to keep ‘offensive outputs’ from being created and presented by the bot. And so, the arguments continue...

Image Sources

Joseph Weizenbaum: Obtained under Creative Common License courtesy of Ulrich Hansen.

John McCarthy: Obtained under Creative Common License courtesy of Jeff Kubina


1. Joseph Weizembaum, Computer Power and Human Reason, p. 259, W. H. Freeman and Company, 1976.

2. John McCarthy, An unreasonable book, Stanford, 1976, An Unreasonable Book (13-Jun-2000) (


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