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

What Israel Can Achieve in Gaza, the Fate of the Hostages, and Planning for the Day After

In a comprehensive analysis, Azar Gat concludes that Israel’s prosecution of the war has so far been successful, and preferable to the alternatives proposed by some knowledgeable critics. (For a different view, see this article by Lazar Berman.) But even if the IDF is coming closer to destroying Hamas, is it any closer to freeing the remaining hostages? Gat writes:

Hamas’s basic demand in return for the release of all the hostages—made clear well before it was declared publicly—is an end to the war and not a ceasefire. This includes the withdrawal of the IDF from the Gaza Strip, restoration of Hamas’s control over it (including international guarantees), and a prisoner exchange on the basis of “all for all.”

Some will say that there must be a middle ground between Hamas’s demands and what Israel can accept. However, Hamas’s main interest is to ensure its survival and continued rule, and it will not let go of its key bargaining chip. Some say that without the return of the hostages—“at any price”—no victory is possible. While this sentiment is understandable, the alternative would be a resounding national defeat. The utmost efforts must be made to rescue as many hostages as possible, and Israel should be ready to pay a heavy price for this goal; but Israel’s capitulation is not an option.

Beyond the great cost in human life that Israel will pay over time for such a deal, Hamas will return to rule the Gaza Strip, repairing its infrastructure of tunnels and rockets, filling its ranks with new recruits, and restoring its defensive and offensive arrays. This poses a critical question for those suggesting that it will be possible to restart the war at a later stage: have they fully considered the human toll should the IDF attempt to reoccupy the areas it would have vacated in the Gaza Strip?

Although Gat is sanguine about the prospects of the current campaign, he throws some cold water on those who hope for an absolute victory:

Militarily, it is possible to destroy Hamas’s command, military units, and infrastructure as a semi-regular military organization. . . . After their destruction in high-intensity fighting, the IDF must prevent Hamas from reviving by continuous action on the ground. As in the West Bank, this project will take years. . . . What the IDF is unlikely to achieve is the elimination of Hamas as a guerrilla force.

Lastly, Gat has some wise words about what will happen to Gaza after the war ends, a subject that has been getting renewed attention since Benjamin Netanyahu presented an outline of a plan to the war cabinet on Thursday. Gat argues that, contrary to the view of the American and European foreign-policy elite, there is no political solution for Gaza. After all, Gaza is in the Middle East, where “there are no solutions, . . . only bad options and options that are much worse.”

Read more at Institute for National Security Studies

More about: Gaza Strip, Gaza War 2023, Israeli Security