Jewish Wisdom for the Age of Artificial Intelligence

March 17, 2023 | Netanel Wiederblank
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New machine-learning programs like ChatGPT—the newest version of which was just released on Tuesday—that can have conversations, answer questions, and produce pieces of writing to specification have lately gained much attention and admiration, and also generated much concern. Among the questions these technologies raise are whether they will achieve sentience, and at what point they might be due the rights and obligations of personhood. Drawing on ancient mystical texts, talmudic discussions of the halakhic status of a golem (artificial humanoid), and various other rabbinic works, Netanel Wiederblank tries to bring a Jewish perspective to these questions. His  point of departure is the statement in Genesis 1:27 that God created man “in His own image.”

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin [1816–1893] and Rabbi Shimon Schwab [1908–1995] point to . . . man’s ability to handle complexity and contradiction. Unlike a computer, which gets stuck when the pieces don’t fit, a human being can embrace opposite and sometimes contradictory realities without requiring a clear-cut resolution. . . . The ability to handle contradiction may stem from something else unique to man—his very composition is a merger of the irreconcilable. Indeed, Moses Naḥmanides [1194–1270] emphasizes that the uniqueness in man lies in his being comprised of the physical and spiritual—two aspects with opposite characteristics.

On the one hand, advances in AI allow computers to address complex issues in a way that traditional computing could not. One method involves a generative adversarial network, which is a class of machine learning where two neural networks contest with each other in order to solve a problem and overcome obstacles, instead of getting stuck in the way traditional computers do. However, this is still a far cry from a human’s ability to handle complexity.

While a computer can be programmed to maximize convenience, efficiency, and safety, it cannot hold onto complex and opposing emotions. Instead, when it encounters a problem, it requires a resolution. We, however, are asked to live with complexity without the expectation of a resolution.

Yet, as these technologies continue to develop, will they eventually start to blur the boundaries between human and machine? Wiederblank argues that there is less to fear than meets the eye. Much as the ability of programs like ChatGPT to write essays or solve complex mathematical problems will force teachers to give their students assignments that require more genuine independent thought, he writes, the fact that “machines can do so many things that seem human forces us to appreciate better what it really means to be human.”

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