Artificial Intelligence Could Revolutionize the Study of Jewish Law. Is That a Good Thing?

Jan. 29 2020

As early as the 1960s, scholars and technicians began the task of digitizing halakhic literature, making it possible to search quickly through an ever-growing group of texts. Technological advances since then have improved the quality of searches, sped up the pace of digitization, and made such tools accessible to anyone with smartphone. Now, write Moshe Koppel and Avi Shmidman, machine learning and artificial intelligence can do much more: they can make texts penetrable to the lay reader by adding vowel-markings and punctuation while spelling out abbreviations, create critical editions by comparing early editions and manuscripts, and even compose lists of sources on a single topic.

After explaining the vast potential created by these new technologies, Koppel and Shmidman discuss both their benefits and their costs, beginning with the fact that a layperson will soon be able to navigate a textual tradition with an ease previously reserved for the sophisticated scholar:

On the one hand, this [change] is a blessing: it broadens the circle of those participating in one of the defining activities of Judaism, [namely Torah study], including those on the geographic or social periphery of Jewish life. [On the other hand], the traditional process of transmission of Torah from teacher to student and from generation to generation is such that much more than raw text or hard information is transmitted. Subtleties of emphasis and attitude—which topics are central, what is a legitimate question, who is an authority, what is the appropriate degree of deference to such authorities, which values should be emphasized and which honored only in the breach, when must exceptions be made, and much more—are transmitted as well.

All this could be lost, or at least greatly undervalued, as the transmission process is partially short-circuited by technology; indeed, signs of this phenomenon are already evident with the availability of many Jewish texts on the Internet.

And moving further into the future, what if computer scientists could create a sort of robot rabbi, using the same sort of artificial intelligence that has been used to defeat the greatest chess masters or Jeopardy champions?

[S]uch a tool could very well turn out to be corrosive, and for a number of reasons. First, programs must define raw inputs upfront, and these inputs must be limited to those that are somehow measurable. The difficult-to-measure human elements that a competent [halakhic authority] would take into account would likely be ignored by such programs. Second, the study of halakhah might be reduced from an engaging and immersive experience to a mechanical process with little grip on the soul.

Third, just as habitual use of navigation tools like Waze diminish our navigating skills, habitual use of digital tools for [answering questions of Jewish law] is likely to dry up our halakhic intuitions. In fact, framing halakhah as nothing but a programmable function that maps situations to outputs like do/don’t is likely to reduce it in our minds from an exalted heritage to one arbitrary function among many theoretically possible ones.

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Artifical Intelligence, Halakhah, Judaism, Technology

Leaked Emails Point to an Iranian Influence Operation That Reaches into the U.S. Government

Sept. 27 2023

As the negotiations leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal began in earnest, Tehran launched a major effort to cultivate support abroad for its positions, according to a report by Jay Solomon:

In the spring of 2014, senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues—particularly its nuclear program—by building ties with a network of influential overseas academics and researchers. They called it the Iran Experts Initiative. The scope and scale of the IEI project has emerged in a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails.

The officials, working under the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, congratulated themselves on the impact of the initiative: at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.

In March of that year, writes Solomon, one of these officials reported that “he had gained support for the IEI from two young academics—Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary—following a meeting with them in Prague.” And here the story becomes particularly worrisome:

Tabatabai currently serves in the Pentagon as the chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance. She previously served as a diplomat on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiating team after the Biden administration took office in 2021. Esfandiary is a senior advisor on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley headed from 2018 to 2021.

Tabatabai . . . on at least two occasions checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry before attending policy events, according to the emails. She wrote to Mostafa Zahrani, [an Iranian scholar in close contact with the Foreign Ministry and involved in the IEI], in Farsi on June 27, 2014, to say she’d met Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal—a former ambassador to the U.S.—who expressed interest in working together and invited her to Saudi Arabia. She also said she’d been invited to attend a workshop on Iran’s nuclear program at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. . . .

Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief of advocacy, said the IEI was an “informal platform” that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with IPIS and Iranian officials, and that it was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.

Read more at Semafor

More about: Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy