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A Jewish Perspective on Artificial Intelligence

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

A Jewish Perspective on Artificial Intelligence

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

Kol Nidre 2023

I want you to look at the Torah. I want you to think about what the Torah is and what it means and has meant to the Jewish people. And how a sefer Torah comes to life. Parchment is selected and each sheet examined. The sheets are individually scored, ink prepared, and each letter meticulously written by hand. Every word is reviewed for accuracy. The scroll is sewn together and affixed to the wooden rollers known as atzei chayyim, trees of life.

The Jewish people are known as the people of the book, and the Torah is our foundational text. In a world where knowledge was transmitted on clay tablets, the development of papyrus 5,000 years ago was a huge technological advancement. Paper came along about 2,000 years ago, and the printing press in the 15th century was revolutionary.

Maybe someone here is old enough to recall when telegraphs emerged as the means for long distance communication, and I certainly recall when a long cord on the phone attached to the wall was a big advance in technology. I graduated from rabbinical school with no personal computer and no access to anything called “the internet.”

Through it all, the Jewish people have continued to revere this ancient text, transmitted in an ancient format. Technology advances beyond the wildest imaginations of our ancestors, and yet we preserve the holiness of the Torah scroll. There is something deeply comforting about touching, seeing, connecting with our holiest treasure, made 100% by human hands.

So, what are we to make of AI, artificial intelligence? While chatty AI has been around for decades, generative AI was introduced to the public only about a year ago, and is perhaps the most disruptive technology to appear in history. By February of this year I felt called on to say something about it on this holiest of days, and by March I was in a panic that Artificial Intelligence was evolving so quickly that there was no way to say anything that wouldn’t be obsolete five minutes later.

By the way, in case there is someone listening who has not yet dipped their toe into the world of artificial intelligence, here’s a quick overview. I wasn’t sure exactly how to express my thoughts, so I asked ChatGPT, my go-to AI source, how to explain AI to an 8 year old. Here’s what popped out in a nanosecond:

“Hey there! AI, which stands for Artificial Intelligence, is a super smart technology that helps computers and machines think and learn like humans. Just like you learn new things every day, AI can learn and understand things too. It can solve problems, make decisions, and even do tasks that usually need humans to do them. It’s like having a very clever friend inside a computer! AI is used in lots of things like self-driving cars, video games, and even in devices at home like smart speakers. It’s pretty amazing!”

I agree that it’s pretty amazing. My mom’s jaw dropped when I showed her how ChatGPT could write a 600 word sermon about the holiday of Passover, quoting Buber and Maimonides, and one appeared as if by magic.

Pretty amazing, AND, pretty concerning as well.

How does AI align with Jewish values, and what wisdom can our tradition bring to our understanding of AI- its blessings and its challenges?

B’SHEM OMRO

For one thing, our tradition is adamant about the concept of intellectual honesty. When we quote something that another person said, we are required to mention their name, to give credit where credit is due. This concept is referred to in rabbinic literature as “ha’omer davar b’shem omro” – saying a word in the name of the person who said it. The Talmud teaches that whoever reports something in the name of the one they heard it from brings redemption to the world.[1] As we all come to rely more and more on words generated not by a human but by a machine, does the same principle apply? Is it genivat da’at, stealing someone’s thinking, their intellectual property, their ideas, to use the words of a computer program as if they were our own? I’m thinking that the answer is yes. It will be interesting to see how halachah, how Jewish law evolves, to address this new consideration.

PRIVACY

Let’s talk about privacy. Privacy is a disappearing commodity in contemporary culture. Alexa is listening inside our homes, and video cameras are everywhere when we walk outside. Once something is posted on the internet it takes on a life of its own, virtually impossible to erase or escape.

We read in the Torah that when someone owes us money and we go to collect the debt, we are required to remain a respectful distance from their home so as not to cause any embarrassment or impinge on their privacy.[2] Clearly, the challenge of maintaining a sense of privacy is a priority social consideration. Some computer engineers have called for a moratorium on AI development while governments try to catch up with laws and even treaties to contain the explosion of unhinged revelation of private information, not to mention nefarious uses of the technology. The White House’s Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights is one attempt to limit the impact of algorithms gone wild.

Personally, I can’t imagine that there is any way to get this genie back into the bottle. Privacy is fast becoming an obsolete value.

TRUTH

I graduated from Brandeis University. The seal of the school has the word Emet, truth, written on it, and the motto is “Truth even unto its innermost parts.” The Hebrew word Emet is composed of 3 letters- alef, the first letter of the alphabet. Mem, the middle letter. And tav, the final letter. Thus, we learn, that truth is comprehensive- the beginning, the middle, and the end- the whole story.

While the rabbis wisely recognize the value of the little white lie that greases social interaction, they hold truth up as fundamentally important. “Truth,” the Talmud tells us, “is the seal of the Holy One.”[3]

Artificial Intelligence may be intelligent, but it is not necessarily truthful. I asked ChatGPT to summarize my career in a few paragraphs. It got a lot right, but it also shared facts that were completely false. AI has been known to simply invent data, and lawyers have discovered that the case law in opinions drafted by AI are not reliable.

We learned years ago with the emergence of PhotoShop, that a picture is no longer worth a thousand words. To add to our concerns, voice technology can now mimic our own voices to the extent that we cannot know with certainty that the person we hear is the person we know.

The value of truth is at great risk. To me, this underlines the role of community and gathering face to face with real people, in real life: people with whom we feel trust. Wrap your head around this- a NY Times opinion piece describing 3 women and their experience with “My A.I. Lover.”[4] In a documentary that expands the conversation, the women “reflect on the appeal and limitations of their virtual companions. They appreciate the feeling of being seen and acknowledge(d) but recognize the absence of real, reciprocal emotions and physical presence.”[5] Artificial Intelligence will never replace what we are experiencing right here, right now.

And to those of you joining us virtually, let me assure that this is really me speaking. Speaking my own words!

SOCIAL JUSTICE

“You shall have one law for the native and the stranger” is another guiding principle in our tradition. It is why Jews have proudly been at the forefront of every movement for social justice, and why social justice is at the heart of Temple Chai. The dark side of AI is a perpetuation of stereotypes that is in total contrast with this value. The Torah begins with the reminder that every human being is made in the image of God. AI, it seems, has not yet absorbed this lesson. It is replete with harmful biases and we need to renew our commitment to confront these injustices wherever they appear.

While chatbot-based psychotherapy has been around for 60 years, it’s become more powerful and popular, and maybe more dangerous, with modern AI chatbots. Emma Pimay reported on folks who experimented with the technology, and quickly got sucked into the vortex.[6] Dan, for example, “described the experience of using the bot for therapy as low stakes, free, and available at all hours from the comfort of his home. He admitted to staying up until 4 am sharing his issues with the chatbot, a habit which concerned his wife that he was “talking to a computer at the expense of sharing (his) feelings and concerns” with her.”[7]

When we look at the lack of mental health support in our culture and the prohibitive expense of medical care, I think that advocating for human care for human beings will be an emerging priority. Ensuring that the best possible care is available as needed is towards the top of our social agenda and increasingly important.

TIKKUN OLAM

As Jews, we are devoted to tikkun olam, to leaving the world better than we found it. Artificial Intelligence has the capability of profoundly enhancing our lives, accelerating the advancement of research that can benefit medical knowledge and promote well-being. We can leverage AI to improve the environment and combat poverty. There is so much potential good. And so much caution necessary.

We are truly on the precipice of radical change beyond comprehension. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Artificial Intelligence is about to change virtually every aspect of our lives.

As AI becomes more and more central in the year ahead, let’s reflect on the Jewish values that endure- individual privacy, the Divine image in each of us, and respect for intellectual property. Our legacy of commitment to tikkun olam and social justice. And our abiding love for a book written by hand by a pious human.

When we think about AI, many thoughts turn to the legend of the Golem of Prague. In 16th century Prague, a Jewish mystic known as the Maharal crafted a golem, an artificial, robotic creature, with inhuman strength, designed to protect the Jews being persecuted at that time. Written on the forehead of the golem, its driving force, was the word “Emet,” the word for truth.

While the golem initially obeyed the rabbi’s commands, it ultimately took on a life of its own and became uncontrollable. The rabbi, recognizing the threat posed by his creation, deactivated the golem by removing the letter alef, leaving behind the mem and tav- meyt, death.

There is no way to deactivate Artificial Intelligence. The best we can do is to advocate for our deepest held, most enduring values in a world that changes daily, aware that, like the Golem of Prague, a force that exceeds the limits of human power can have unpredictable and unforeseen consequences. In the year ahead, may we renew our dedication to be forces for good in an ever-changing world.


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