Volume 75, Number 37 | February 1 - 7, 2006

Eliza Redux and compatriot, Sigmund Freud.

Online ‘therapist’ hangs up shingle on East Seventh

By Nicole Davis

Last week, Adrianne Wortzel, an artist and professor of new media at New York City College of Technology, unveiled her latest installation, Eliza Redux (www.elizaredux.org), an off-the-shelf robot that responds to questions posed by people online. The Robosapian is sold at Sharper Image as a kid’s toy, but Wortzel, along with Robert and Michael Schneider, repurposed Eliza for online therapy sessions by taping down its legs to keep it from walking, and switching its circuitry so that instead of outbursts like wolf’s whistles, it delivers lines based upon the Artificial Intelligence program ELIZA, written 40 years ago by computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum to replicate the dialogue between psychoanalyst and patient. As users logged in for cyber sessions with Eliza Redux last Saturday, the robot came to life in Wortzel’s East Village walk up, which was filled with sounds of reverie from McSorley’s Old Ale House below.

What’s it like living so close to McSorley’s?

The people from McSorley’s have saved my life on occasion, because in the 60s, it was really dangerous—no one would come down here believe it or not. And a couple of times they’d hear me [call for help.] They’re very protective of everyone in the neighborhood…It’s much safer [now] but it’s also so crowded. And at first I thought I’d like all the shops, but it’s actually a little annoying because it’s not a neighborhood anymore. It’s more like a stage set. And to see it happen all the way east is amazing. My dad and my grandfather had a store on Orchard Street, so as a little girl, we would go walk over the Williamsburg Bridge on Sundays to meet them for dinner at a Kosher restaurant, and the place was a mess, so [now when I visit] I get a little (sighs) ‘oh, what happened?!’

When someone logs in for a session with Eliza, can you find out who they are?

We see the transcripts and the logs, but we don’t know who the people are. We don’t get your email address. We don’t want anything like that. We want it to be anonymous.

Why combine psychoanalysis and robots? What was the inspiration for this?

In all of the installations I’ve done, people attribute human-ness to these machines that are ridiculous. I’m not making fun of people. It’s just that people are so willing to give power to something that’s magical or appears to be human. But the main thing was that I really liked the story about Joseph Weizenbaum. In the 60s, he created what is considered the first Artificial Intelligence work at MIT. He made a program on a computer where you typed in questions and the program responded to key words. This is the program I’m using, except I’ve written in more text. I’ve made [Eliza Redux] a little obnoxious. But if you said, ‘I hate my mother,’ [Eliza Redux] would say ‘Tell me more about your mother.’ It’s right out of Weizenbaum. It’s his script. It wasn’t for psychoanalysis, it was a linguistic experiment. But what happened was that everyone in the lab that knew it was just a computer recognizing key words got addicted to sessions… Everyone knew it wasn’t understanding anything, but it seemed to understand, just like [Eliza Redux] does. So Weizenbaum got really upset—he didn’t think it represented anything that could help anyone psychologically, so he shut it down. He’d probably freak out if he saw this.

What would you like to come from this?

We want to see how deep we can go, see how complicated it can get. We want people to get engaged [with it], take a journey into an interior that doesn’t have to be your own, but one that gives you lots of freedom to play with words and ideas. But it’s not real — I think of it as art.

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