There has been much concern lately about artificial intelligence. You may have heard that last week a Senate subcommittee hosted the CEO of OpenAI, the creators of ChatGPT, Sam Altman. In his testimony, Altman (who is, BTW, a nice Jewish boy from St. Louis) actually asked the Senate to regulate AI. Many tech companies have zealously fought against regulation, so to hear Mr. Altman express concern about the potential dangers of AI and to seek regulatory controls may have been a relief for some.
But the complicated part, and perhaps Mr. Altman is gambling on this, is that (a) Congress moves much more slowly than the rate at which widespread use of AI is unfolding, and (b) it is not immediately clear how exactly to regulate it. The devil (not that we Jews believe in such a thing) is in the details.
Nonetheless, this is clearly something to which Jews, as people whose tradition teaches us to be responsible for humanity and our world, should be paying attention.
Speaking of details, Parashat Bemidbar opens with a commandment to count people, to take a census of the Israelites while they are encamped in the wilderness, for the purposes of determining the fighting strength of their army. Much of the parashah is dedicated to these numbers.
This report of numbers by tribe might appear as a dull, bureaucratic endeavor which obscures the personhood of all of those counted, not to mention the women and people under the age of 20 who are not even counted. The first three chapters of Bemidbar come off looking something like the tape from an adding machine – lots of numbers and then a bottom line, which in this case is 603,550. (The extrapolated estimate of the entire population who left Egypt is therefore about two million, which seems like an impossibly high number. But far be it from me to say that something in the Torah is not true…)
But here’s something that you might miss if you are not looking closely. The Hebrew instruction to perform this census is phrased thus (Bemidbar / Numbers 1:2):
שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כׇּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
Se-u et rosh kol adat benei Yisra-el
Now, your translation of this verse in the Etz Hayyim ḥumash says, “Take a census of the whole Israelite company.” But the Hebrew speaks idiomatically. A more literal translation is “Lift up the head of the entire group of Israelites.” The suggestion of “lifting up the head” sounds much more personal: Do not merely count heads; lift them up. Take each individual’s face into account. Acknowledge each member of the group as a human being, and as part of the greater whole. As if to drive the point home, the passages about counting are followed by the the birkat kohanim, the Priestly Blessing of Bemidbar / Numbers 6:24-26, which occurs in Parashat Naso (which we won’t get to until the week after Shavu’ot). The third verse is as follows:
יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
Yisa Adonai panav elekha veyasem lekha shalom.
May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.
It’s the same verb: נשא / to lift up.
When it comes to counting people, the details matter. It’s not just a strip of adding tape. Every one of us counts. Every one of us must be acknowledged and lifted up.
A brief report caught my eye this week, regarding the state of religion in America. An organization called the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) published the results of a recent survey of Americans’ attachment to religion. And, as you might expect, the percentage of us for whom religion is important is going down, and the number of unaffiliated folks continues to rise.
And the Jews, of course, are the same as everybody else, only more so.
Now, you certainly have all heard me make the case for the value of Judaism, if not religious practice in general, and I don’t need to do that right now. (But just wait until Rosh HaShanah!). Some of the statistics in this report show that people who attend religious services at least a few times a year tend to be more engaged in civic and political activities, particularly those things where people gather and work together. And I think we all know from anecdotal evidence that religious practice actually induces pro-social behavior in many of us.
So all the more so: religion brings people together, and is good for us as individuals and for society. It lifts us up, and helps us to see each other’s faces and acknowledge our shared humanity. And every one of us counts.
Nowadays, we have many fancy adding machines which help us through our lives: silicon slaves which do our bidding, and can help us achieve things which our ancestors could not even have imagined.
The Israeli historian and social philosopher Yuval Noah Harari opens his book Homo Deus with an explanation for why people no longer need religion: because we have effectively vanquished plague, famine, and war. Yes, we have just been through a minor plague, and war is clearly still around, but the numbers of people who perish due to these things is far fewer than did so in previous centuries. Harari argues that our ability to live and thrive and not be so concerned on a daily basis for matters of life and death have obviated the need for religion, and for God. And indeed, when we have created tools such as artificial intelligence which may seem to have personality, perhaps we have achieved the status of Homo Deus, of God-like people.
Sam Altman, in his testimony on Capitol Hill, pointed to the fact that when Photoshop was first introduced, it fooled some people initially, but we quickly learned to distinguish between an actual photo and something which had been altered. That sort of technology will of course continue to improve, and I am certain that it is only a matter of time before our adding machines will be able to deceive us in ways we would never have considered before.
And so too with language models like ChatGPT. They may ultimately sound human. But I do not believe that they will ever replace actual humans. And they will certainly never possess the Divine spark that is at the core of each of us.
ChatGPT will never be able to make a minyan. AI will never be able to give a proper hug to comfort those who mourn. It will never be able to get up and dance with joy as we name a new baby or celebrate a couple who is about to be married. It will not seek atonement on Yom Kippur, or sing moving melodies that turn the heart to God, or pray silently or yearn for God’s presence as we welcome Shabbat with Yedid Nefesh. A computer will never understand the value of Shabbat, or the conscious choice to take the holy opportunities of Jewish life, which give our lives framework and meaning.
Rabbi Danny Schiff, toward the end of his book, Judaism in a Digital Age, which we will be discussing after qiddush, addresses the question of whether the future necessitates a human presence. He writes,
Judaism’s answer to this question is yes. No matter how animated, intelligent, responsive, or reliable our AI creations might become, AI will never attain the combination of qualities that will merit the status of being “created in the image” [betzelem Elohim, a reference to Bereshit / Genesis 1:28]… The gulf between achieving convincing human-like qualities and being human is almost certainly unbridgeable. Jews are mandated to expand the Divine image in the world, not to lessen it. That goal demands the preservation of humanity. Judaism provides no license to contemplate an alternative… The irreplaceable human perspective and the poetry inherent within the grandeur and the struggle of human existence are exquisite… Each human life contains the potential for untold significance, and that will remain true even if AI comes to be viewed as functionally superior.
Put more bluntly, our devices may count us. But no computer will ever lift up our heads and appreciate the fullness of our humanity, of who we are as individuals and as the significant constituent parts of a human collective.
And furthermore, no amount of technological modification of the human body or mind will make us God-like. God is far too elusive to enable that. Contrary to what Yuval Harari says, the need for religion – for Judaism – will never go away. We will always need to yearn together, to mourn together, to gather for prayer and celebration and comfort. We will always need a transcendent framework which brings us back to the spark of Divinity; no microchip will ever be able to recreate that.
ChatGPT, Google Bard, or whatever else comes after them will surely know Torah. They will be able to recite gemara with ease and probably teach and interpret for knowledgeable Jewish people. But they will hardly be able to convincingly sing ‘Etz ḥayyim hi lamaḥaziqim bah” / The Torah is a tree of life for those who grasp it.
Our strength comes from grasping the words of Torah. And we let that go at our peril. So we just might have to keep holding onto and holding up our tradition, paying attention to the details, and lifting our heads together for the sake of humanity.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/20/2023.)