The Robot Rabbi and the Human Pupil

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, March 10, 2023 / 17 Adar 5783

Summary: This week’s Oasis Songs explores one of the ramifications of artificial intelligence.

Reading Time: Six minutes

Fifteen years ago, my freshman roommate from college, Eric, and I had a spirited conversation. Eric was a translator, versed in several languages, and when I proposed that pretty soon, machines would make his work obsolete, he scoffed at the notion. At that point, Google Translate was only a couple of years old, and its work product left something to be desired. In the years since, as machine translation improved, Eric had to reconcile himself to a new reality—there was no more money to be had in translation. Taking responsibility for his own bottom line, he pivoted, becoming an interpreter of the spoken word. The machines are not quite ready for this higher-level task, though Eric may need to reinvent himself yet again.

Perhaps because of that conversation, I have wanted to give a High Holiday sermon on artificial intelligence ever since my pulpit in Cleveland. While AI will bring tremendous advances to us in any number of forms, it also may prove to be the greatest and most existential threat to humanity. We have no predictive tools to understand the changes it will bring; after dozens of conversations, I have a sneaking suspicion that practitioners in the field may be the least well-equipped to understand the meaning of their inventions. The reality will most likely exceed our imaginations.

Until now, I have largely refrained from speaking about artificial intelligence because I lacked sufficient background or knowledge. Later, it wasn’t clear to me that I could substantially demonstrate why the average person should care about artificial intelligence. It seemed far removed from our lives, and the state of the technology wasn’t sufficiently clear to someone without a computing background. Yet as computers first beat the greatest human chess champions and then “Go” masters, it increasingly has become manifest that the boundaries of what we consider as the distinctly human realm are being chipped away.

With the arrival of ChatGPT and machine learning that can quickly and coherently compose a five-paragraph essay, suddenly the relevance of AI to everyday life is no longer an academic or abstruse matter: it is on the front pages. With its arrival, another uniquely human capacity seems poised for the chopping block. How long will it take for a genius AI writer to surface, composing works of such beauty and poignancy as to shame our greatest writers? It seems more a question of when, rather than if.

What is clear is that as artificial intelligence gains in capacity, we will be forced to consider what it means to be human. This will not be the first time our technology has confronted us with these sorts of questions. As a boy, I was enamored of the folk hero, John Henry, who competed against a steam-powered drill. Although he won the race, his efforts cost him his life, yet it would be difficult to overstate the difference between a steam drill and our thinking machines.

While the secular press has focused on ChatGPT, I have been experimenting with Chabad’s new AI “rabbi,” a chat bot that has been uploaded with the full corpus of the Jewish library. I queried it on esoteric topics, asking it how Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla, a 13th-century mystic, recommended a spiritual adept might best “storm the heavens.” Its answer was spot on.

For this edition of my Oasis Songs, I invited the AI rabbi to offer a profound insight from this week’s Torah portion of Vayishlakh. This was its answer:

Vayishlach tells the story of Jacob’s return to the land of Canaan and his encounter with his estranged brother Esau. One profound insight from this portion is the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Despite their troubled past, Jacob and Esau are able to reconcile and make peace with each other. Jacob sends gifts to Esau as a gesture of goodwill, and when they finally meet, they embrace and weep together. This teaches us that even the most bitter conflicts can be resolved through sincere efforts at reconciliation and forgiveness.

Furthermore, the Torah portion also emphasizes the importance of taking responsibility for our actions and making amends for any wrongs we have committed. Jacob acknowledges his past mistakes and seeks to make things right with Esau, demonstrating the value of humility and accountability.

Overall, Parashat Vayishlach teaches us that forgiveness, reconciliation, and taking responsibility for our actions are essential components of healthy relationships and personal growth.

On the one hand, this is a moving and accurate Torah teaching that is relevant to our lives. Reconciliation and responsibility are indeed essential to us, so learning how to embrace each of these is an important part of maturation. The AI rabbi had the goods.

On the other hand, it will be quite some time before machines will have the capacity to form and damage relationships so that they will need to reconcile or take on responsibility for their actions. Whether they ever will remains a hotly debated topic that touches upon big issues such as the nature of consciousness.

In other words, the AI rabbi has no experiential standing for its teaching; it is merely repeating the lessons others have gathered. It doesn’t know what it feels like to get into a bitter argument and lose a best friend or suffer a painful break-up or divorce. It hasn’t languished from loneliness or felt the barbs of ostracism. It lacks that all-too-human urge to flee from our responsibilities as well the profound internal change we sense whenever we do stand up and fulfill a difficult duty.

This experiential difference matters because people need role models, or dugmaot, to inspire us and uplift us. We need to know that the lesson or wisdom being proffered has been field-tested by the teacher and that it is therefore achievable. As noted in Deuteronomy 30:12, lo b’shamayim hee. The Torah is not in the heavens; rather, any committed human can live up to its precepts. A dugma shows by example that it is possible to be kind, humble, and compassionate.

As the traditional English canon of authoritative authors was dismantled, it was replaced by authors who were women, people of color, or individuals who were LGBTQ+. This project to extend or alter the canon to hear from different voices came in part from our universal need for role models. While some of us can learn wisdom from any source, most of us have a need to relate to the source from which it comes. We need to be able to imagine ourselves standing in those shoes. We need to know that if it is possible for someone with a similar background or life experience, then it is possible for us too.

As the machines continue to evolve, performing tasks that only humans previously could do, our understanding of what it means to be human will also evolve. Will our understanding of what a role model is also change?

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What do you imagine some of the greatest gains from AI will be?
  2. Are you worried about AI? What worries you?
  3. If the machines made it so that we were all freed from the necessity of working, with what would you occupy yourself?

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