Artificial Intelligence: The Forbidden Fruit of the 21st Century – Algemeiner

Source: artificial intelligence

A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

Long before the invention of self-driving cars and robotics, Jews conceived the idea of man-made life.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming so advanced now that it is conceivable that machines could not only replace humans for most jobs, but actually develop intelligence higher than that of humans. Machines will be capable of designing machines.

This development is a danger as great as any challenge we face today. Humans ceding control of life to machines is a threat to all humankind. This is not science fiction; it is real, and it is imminent.

There are currently no global rules on the development of AI, and no ethical standards or restraints. And there is no organized effort or political movement to demand that ethical and moral standards be applied to research in this field.

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Jewish sources could not have foreseen AI, but they did perceive a level of life between the fully-developed human and the animals — the Golem.

There are many different Talmudic and Kabbalistic interpretations of the Golem. One suggests that God created Adam as well as the Golem; another tradition has it that Adam was a Golem before God breathed life into him and gave him a soul. All seem to agree that the Golem represents a being that is limited, unfinished, and incomplete.

In a later incarnation, the Golem takes on an ominous aspect, as it escapes its creator and terrorizes the community. This version inspired writers, including Mary Shelley, who wrote the famous novel Frankenstein.

According to this legend, the Golem is a giant created by a rabbi who inscribed the word EMET (Hebrew for truth) on his forehead, which gave him life. The giant becomes invincible and uncontrollable. In a desperate attempt to restore order, the rabbi finds a way to remove the first letter of the word EMET, leaving the letters MET (death) and the Golem dies.

The point of the story is that once the monster gets out of control, only its creator can find a way to disable it.

In recent history, during the proliferation of nuclear weapons following World War II, when civilization itself was in peril, one of the creators of the nuclear bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, alerted the world to the danger and worked to have its use restricted though the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Where is the Robert Oppenheimer of today? Who will disable today’s monster about to devour us?

In today’s secular society, who will raise the topic of morality and responsibility? Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the UK, reminds us that religion deals with the moral limits of power. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should: “We have the power but not the permission; we have the ability but not the right.”

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve could partake of absolutely anything except the fruit of one tree, interestingly called the Tree of Knowledge. The modern, scientific mind rejects the idea that any knowledge is off limits, but even in Paradise, there is forbidden fruit.

Paul Socken (PhD, University of Toronto) was on the faculty of the University of Waterloo, Canada for 37 years and is currently Distinguished Professor Emeritus. He is a former Chairman of the Department of French Studies and the author of 10 books. He is also the founder of the Jewish Studies program at Waterloo.