Parshat HaShavua

AI and Jewish Story

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?”
-John Milton, Paradise Lost

“You need to understand,” Craig warned me before he started his demo, “this is going to change everything about how we do everything. I think that it represents mankind’s greatest invention to date. It is qualitatively different — and it will be transformational.”
-Thomas Friedman, “Our New Promethean Moment”, The New York Times

At this point, I am getting tired of being in the midst of historical transformational moments. It wouldn’t be so bad to imagine that five years from now will look much the way things look today. Let alone twenty or thirty years. But, here we are! I’m not even confident I can predict what next year will bring.

In the last few days I have seen article after article and several of my go-to podcasts ramping up attention on artificial intelligence (AI).  A new iteration of ChatGPT just released and companies like Google and Microsoft are integrating artificial intelligence into their products and platforms. It feels surreal to me, something I could not fathom and definitely dismissed as unrealistic in my lifetime. Of course, it is entirely possible that AI will not blossom into the fullest version of what people imagine. But AI represents a wild spectrum of risk and return, ranging from a useful tool to an existential threat to our species. I believe we need more moral and strategic models to ground our relationship to artificial intelligence. 

If you (like me two weeks ago) have only the foggiest idea of what AI is and what the stakes are, you can just google and find tons of articles. Here are a few resources that I’ve encountered recently that go deeper into the weirdness of AI. 

Friedman, in particular, tries to help us understand this moment through two literary references – the chaotic tornado that brings Dorothy to a vibrant and confusing new land of Oz; and the Greek myth of Prometheus, who granted humanity the radically transformative technology of fire. While the lesson Dorothy learns is that at the end of the day, there’s no place like home, there’s no turning back from the gift of Prometheus. Home is forever in the past. 

The quote I started with from John Milton resonates with two other literary references we can use. First, Mary Shelley uses it as an epigraph to begin her work, Frankenstein. A creature we bring to life and consciousness leaves us shaking with horror… 

But Milton’s words are placed in Adam’s mouth, of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. And that feels to me like a good place to start in generating Jewish resources to ground us. For Milton, Adam bewails his banishment from the Garden, reminding God that he didn’t make himself. Why should he suffer for the design flaws of the divine creator? 

I prefer to read the story of Eve and then Adam eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge as an archetype for technological paradigm shift. Like with AI, the fruit gives them exponentially greater access to knowledge. And what does God do? God reminds them of their humanity, or rather “curses” them into experiencing their mortality and their humanity. Labor, pain, and death are not so much curses as the foundations of our shared humanity, and in a moment of leaping forward, this story teaches us to come back in touch with our animal selves, and integrate the new capacity slowly. 

The Tower of Babel also gives us insight into the present moment. In that story, all humans come together with a joint project of building the world’s tallest tower. They aim for the heavens, and once again God “curses” the people by making them speak different languages. No longer able to collaborate, the project falls apart. 

Today, there is an AI arms race among companies and governments. It appears to be the opposite of the Babel project, but I think there is in fact a shared language driving the speed of building this new technology. This is the language of competition, fear, greed, and “me first”. Many of the commentators on the Babel story suggest that in their desire to build swiftly, the people would lament when a brick fell but ignore humans falling to their death. They lost sight of the dignity and worth of human beings. 

If we were able to speak more fluently the language of ethics and responsibility, we wouldn’t be able to collaborate so well in the competitive drive to succeed first regardless of who gets damaged along the way. 

A third Jewish resource for conceptualizing our relationship to AI is none other than the book of Leviticus! This book generates a vision of Israelite community oriented around three big ideas: (1) God’s holiness is the source of good and also powerfully dangerous; (2) human nature means we will mess up; (3) so we implement safeguards and create pathways to repair the mess. 

I am in no way trying to equate God with AI, just to be clear. But what I find most compelling about Leviticus is its obsession with holiness and its fear that people will approach it in the wrong way. One of the only two stories in the book has Nadav and Avihu offer “strange fire”, and they in turn are consumed by God’s fire. While some say they made a mistake, others suggest that they so yearned to experience God’s presence that they willingly offered themselves into oblivion. In a 2022 survey, AI experts gave a 1 out 10 chance that AI would cause “human extinction or similarly permanent and severe disempowerment of the human species”. And these are the people actively developing AI! 

Leviticus offers us a model that brings human nature into balance with a mysterious, dangerous, yet ultimately beneficial Presence. The stories of Adam and Eve and the Tower of Babel, and the big picture teachings of Leviticus, all bring a clear-eyed assessment of human nature’s failings, and yet they remind us that when we balance our drive to succeed and discover and invent with our also-human capacities for compassion, kindness, justice, and ethics, we have a hope of enduring and thriving, even amidst great changes. 

All of these thoughts are very much just the beginning of my exploration of AI and its relationship with Judaism. I’d love to hear more from you about what questions, concerns, and ideas you have! 

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