Dear Jew in the City-
Elon Musk just warned the world that we had better get A.I. under control before robots take over the world. Are there any Jewish sources which might help us understand this better? Is this a fear according to Jewish wisdom?
– Robotic Neurotic
Thanks for your question. Judaism acknowledges that life comes in many forms, both physical and spiritual. The physical forms are pretty obvious – examples include trees, bumblebees, zebras, octopi, daffodils, paramecia and people. Spiritual life forms are not as apparent to us but they include angels and (for those of us who believe in them), demons. The Rambam tells us in Yesodei HaTorah (Foundations of the Torah) 2:9 that even the heavenly spheres are alive in a way that we cannot understand. They possess a form of consciousness, hence various verses in Psalms that call upon the heavens to praise God.
The lines between different stages of life can get pretty blurry. The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, d. 1572) and his disciple Rabbi Chaim Vital (d. 1620) described how coral represents an intermediate stage between rocks and plants, and monkeys represent the intermediate stage between “dumb” animals and man. (It is interesting to note that the Kabbalists considered primates an evolutionary “link” centuries before Darwin.)
Different categories of life can resemble the categories on either side in different ways. For example, the Talmud (Chagigah 16a) discusses three ways in which humans resemble animals (a lower physical life form) and three ways in which we resemble angels (a spiritual life form). Like animals, we eat, excrete and reproduce. Like angels, we think, speak and walk erect. (The Talmud there also discusses three ways in which demons resemble humans and three ways in which they resemble angels. Personally, I fall into the “demon skeptic” camp but those who are interested in such things can go look it up.)
So we see that life comes in a lot of forms, not all of it physical, with a lot of gray areas of overlap. Is virtual life possible? Absolutely. The only real question is whether man is capable of creating life and consciousness. The answer to that is already in: Judaism says yes.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin (65b) says that humans have the potential to create worlds, including life. Using the Kabbalistic work Sefer Yetzirah (the Book of Creation), Rava made a man (presumably a golem). He sent this man to Rabbi Zeira, who questioned it, but Rava’s creation lacked the power of speech. When the creature failed Rabbi Zeira’s “Turing test,” he realized that it was an artificial life form and told it to go back to the dust from which it was formed. (We are also told that Rav Chanina and Rav Oshiya would create a calf each week, which could be eaten just like a calf born through natural means.)
Rava’s creation may have looked like a human being, and it may even have been sentient, but it still wasn’t a human being. (If it was, Rabbi Zeira would probably not have told it to drop dead!) The Maharsha notes that such creations do not have souls; presumably, that part of creation is reserved for God alone. So man may be able to create artificial intelligence – and it may even be indistinguishable from natural intelligence – but that doesn’t make it identical with natural life.
So am I worried about a robot uprising a la The Terminator, or some other form of AI takeover, as in The Matrix? Not really. We have pretty good forecasts for our end-of-the-world scenario – the Messianic era, the future revival of the dead, etc. – and being taken over by a giant computer or sentient holograms doesn’t really fit into that scenario too neatly. True, there is the war of Gog and Magog, which may or may not happen, depending on which path we take to reach our Messianic future. Could that war be between humans and artificial life forms? I imagine so but even that scenario is but a chapter in the story and not the tale’s end.
So is a scenario like the one Musk warns about possible according to the Torah? I don’t think anything rules it out. But looking at the state of the world in general and the Middle East in particular, a robot uprising is not even remotely the threat that most concerns me.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent