The Sabbath Might Be a Bulwark against the Dehumanizing Future of Technology

Recently, the experimental computer program known as ChatGPT, which provides answers in text form to questions posed by users—based on knowledge it has acquired from studying the Internet—has been getting much attention from social and traditional media. Such technological novelties naturally raise both hopes and fears about the potential of artificial intelligence, and the moral and ethical questions it might pose. Aaron Segal considers some of these questions in his review of Staying Human: A Jewish Theology for the Age of Artificial Intelligence, by Harris Bor:

[T]he book isn’t so much about artificial intelligence as such, as about the specter of a technological singularity, in which an artificial superintelligence emerges—a being vastly more intelligent than humans—and in the process effectively swallows us pitiful little human beings, “integrating” us into a single, enormously powerful and knowledgeable system. . . . The thought of many of us plugging permanently into the metaverse—whether for kicks or of necessity—all the while being supplied with nutrients unawares, is no longer just an abstract philosophical thought experiment proposed to test the truth of hedonism, or just a science-fictional dystopia: it’s a realistic science-fictional dystopia.

[Bor’s] discussion of Shabbat, which caps the book, is perhaps the most profound. He notes that “On Shabbat, the roles we generally perform are forbidden or forgotten. I am not a lawyer. My friend is not a dentist, teacher, or producer.” This paradoxically gives rise, as Bor notes, to two opposing ways of being. On the one hand, the suspension of roles makes it so that “existence is undifferentiated.” . . . On the other hand, the suspension of roles allows us to resist, temporarily, the all-consuming and objectifying march of technology, which makes each of us a mere role-player, a tool in some larger project that isn’t one’s own. On Shabbat we manage in one fell swoop, and by virtue of the very same cessation of labor, to encounter both the oneness of the whole and our ineliminable individuality.

Bor’s book contains no concrete proposals for contending with the sweeping impact of artificial intelligence in general, or the prospect of a singularity in particular. As I see things, that’s an urgent desideratum, and more Jewish thinkers and halakhic authorities need to take it up. But the book makes a compelling case that a halakhic way of life is an excellent preparation for what lies ahead. Whatever its merits in addressing the future, it has already enriched my experience of halakhah in the present.

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Artifical Intelligence, Judaism, Shabbat, Technology

When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount