Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
March 25, 2016 / 15 Adar II, 5776
Purim was yesterday, which means Pesach is upon us. As part of our community preparation for the holiday, I am attaching three links. The first, right here, is to the form for selling your chametz to me over Passover. You can print it up and mail it to me, scan and send it, or pick forms up during Shabbat in the weeks to come. It is customary to include some amount of money to effectuate the sale, which will go both to tzedekah and to the person who will purchase our chametz.
The second and third are links to two recent legal opinions allowing Ashkenazic Jews to eat kitniot during Passover. Kitniot include food items like rice and beans.The one here is from one of the top modern poseks (Jewish legal decisors), Rabbi David Golinkin. This one is from Rabbis Amy Levin and Avraham Reisner, and you can find that here. If you are considering changing your family’s custom, please read these or reach out to me as there are some special procedures that we need to be aware of in America when choosing to eat kitniot on Passover. In any case, all Jews, even those who do not eat kitniot, may dine at a home where kitniot are served on Pesach.
In the coming weeks I hope to speak about both of these topics in greater depth.
Another news item caught my attention in recent days. A computer recently beat the world Go champion. Go is the Asian equivalent of chess, and far more complicated than chess, where the machines already outpaced us twenty years ago. That’s when IBM’s Deep Blue defeated the reigning world champion, Garry Kasparov.
This time, we humans may still have a short-lived edge, for while Google’s Deep Mind beat the first Go champion ever, it has still to play the ranking world’s best. But the game of Go is at least an order of magnitude more complicated per move than chess. In a recent Scientific American article, researchers noted that “there are more possible positions in Go than the number of atoms in the universe.”
More possible positions than atoms in the universe! Wow. Wow that humans regularly master this game of stunning complexity. And wow that humans designed a machine intelligent enough to beat one of our best players.
Which brings me back to a moment in Jerusalem thirteen years ago. It was at the end of a five hour Passover seder at the home of an old Talmud professor, Moshe Benowitz, and it was one of those throw away door knob comments that over time would change my perception forever and sent me on a path of discovery. Speaking of his brilliant nephew who had been at table with us, Professor Benowitz noted, “My nephew is convinced that in the near future, computers will not only become more intelligent than humans, but will supplant us.”
It was a strange last comment on an evening filled with complicated Talmudic discussions from Pesachim, a section of the Gemara that focusses on our festival of freedom, and includes curious incantations to make over lettuce and charoset. It was one that, at the time, I registered internally with vehement rejection. Not possible I thought. Who wants to face the planned obsolescence of our species? Besides, back then, only a few hard core folks believed in the technological singularity, that quickly approaching moment when the machines will almost overnight become vastly more intelligent than we are, and I had not yet been exposed to this concept.
There was also something ironic in all this. On the night celebrating our physical and spiritual freedom from human oppressors, we reflected on the possibility that our machines, which are meant to serve us, might soon become our masters. As though the story of redemption could echo through time and across forms of sentient beings.
In the intervening years, I have avidly followed the development of artificial intelligence and of its geometrical advances. This intractable march to thinking machines has taught us to think more deeply about what constitutes thought itself and raised deep questions about what it means to be human. Is there something unique about us? Something irreproducible? Something worth saving? If it is not the ability to think itself, what is special about the human being? Is it the soul? Or has God’s great power of evolution simply begun to shift toward silicon? Are we becoming outdated as part of a greater plan?
During the same period of time, the center of my concern has shifted from environmental responsibility to this sneaking suspicion that the greatest danger we face is not from environmental catastrophe or internecine warfare, but from our relentless drive to make for ourselves another Golden Calf, another god who we could serve.
It became evident that people with specialized skills would be the first to find their work in jeopardy. First the blue collar worker was supplanted by assembly line robots. Then machines began to perform some of the work of lawyers, and are expected to replace first and second year lawyers within a decade. IBM’s Watson is boning up on medical cases to see how good of a medical diagnostician it can become; perhaps better than many human doctors? We are not there yet, but we are quite close. Still, if part of human dignity is found in our productive work lives, what happens to the millions of people whose specialized knowledge will soon be much more cheaply embedded in chips?
We of course have already seen this occur. While automation has brought us more affordable goods, it has also diminished the value of human labor. Those people whose jobs have so far proven most resistant to replacement are generalists. Indeed, for a while, I saw a continuing role for humans as generalists. That has proven reluctantly hard for machines to manage.
Here’s another possibility, and I think it can relate directly to how we live our lives now.
Yesterday evening while cooking dinner, I went into one of those food preparation trances where the food seems to cook itself, and where new flavor combinations readily occur. “Instinctual cooking.” The recipe, with vanilla, soy sauce, smoke and coriander was an unfamiliar combination to me, yet the flavor was grounded and natural (and tasted pretty good, too!). Believe it or not, there’s a lot of high level data crunching and modeling involved in juxtaposing uncommon flavors together. That’s why young and inexperienced chefs tend to get it wrong. I remember those days in my own cooking career. You see, there’s nothing instinctual to “instinctual cooking.”
It’s like this with much of human creativity, research has shown. Answers come when the conscious mind is focussed elsewhere. That brings us to this question of human uniqueness. We tend to think of ourselves as our conscious mind. We tend to try to control the life around us based on our surface thoughts. I think a lot of this has to do with the anxiety and apprehension we carry around in our beings. Sometimes we even think long and hard about solutions. We plan and structure. Some of that is necessary. Much of that’s unavoidable. A lot of this limits us. Besides, the machines are already beginning to perform those sorts of tasks.
There is a another form of human processing in which answers arise from deep structures within the mind. In fact, we now have scientific proof that our minds solve problems before our conscious selves become aware of those solutions. We are, in other words, so much more than we imagine we are, and our anxiety prevents us from engaging more readily with these avenues of human genius and uniqueness. Most of our schooling interferes with encountering our own brilliance.
Some of the greatest human and personal achievements have come when we embraced a faith and trust that the whole of our being is brighter than our brittle, constricted, conscious minds. Previous ages called this divine inspiration. Divine, because the answers came not from the part of our identity that is our “I”, but from somewhere else.
Don’t get me wrong. The conscious mind has some useful problem solving capabilities. I take advantage of that daily. But well-honed and experienced people who have plyed their own human fullness, and learned how to get out of their own way represent something rather special about the human creature. Michael Jordan called this “being in the zone.” That sense of self-transcendence that arises when we lose awareness of our own self. Flow.
And in that losing, we encounter what is most real about our selves. That part of ourselves which really is remarkably free. The jazz of being. As we move toward Pesach and our festival of freedom, I leave you these peculiar doorknob comments, thirteen years on.