The Silicon Emperor’s New Soul

— Rabbi Avi Shafran

“A donkey loaded up with books.”  That’s the term the Chovos Halevovos (Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pekudah) uses to describe a scholar who has memorized much information but lacks the judgment, character and/or human insight to transform what he carries into wisdom.

Donkeys bray and smell bad.  Computers whir (at least if they have fans or rotating hard drives) and are odorless (though some keyboards are redolent of coffee).  But donkeys and computers share two things in common: Each can hold much, and neither approaches being human.

More after the jump.
The media minions were gushing of late over the performance of an IBM computer that bested a pair of bright and well-versed human beings in a game show competition that tested knowledge in a broad array of areas.  Christened “Watson,” the computer brought to the podium a 15-terabyte data bank of facts.  And it answered questions (or, better, supplied questions to proffered answers or hints, the conceit of the game show, Jeopardy!) with aplomb.  
Just as it was programmed (by humans, of course) to do, “Watson” zeroed in on key words in the clue, combed its mega-memory for associations and, if its program rated the result sufficiently likely to be correct, sounded the game buzzer in a tiny fraction of a second.  The flesh and blood contestants didn’t really stand a chance.

Hosannas sounded from all directions.  The accomplishment was hailed as a quantum leap toward Artificial Intelligence, the holy grail of some scientists who believe that a machine can be constructed that is indistinguishable in its cognitive abilities from a human being.

What Watson made me think of, oddly, was PETA, “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”  

The silicon scholar and the extreme animal rights group might not seem to have anything to do with each other.  But both foster the same disturbing and deeply wrong notion: that human beings are not an utterly unique part of creation.

PETA morally equates animals with humans.  Its “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign compared the killing of chickens and cows to the murder of men, women and children. Its president memorably lamented that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.”

Watson’s inventors and promoters exhibit no such mental aberration.  For all I know, they may well enjoy a good steak.  But all the same, a subtle offense lies in the Artificial Intelligence crowd’s notion that a sufficiently advanced computer could achieve consciousness, sentience, self-awareness.

Because it, too, presupposes that humans are not qualitatively special beings, that, in our essences, we ourselves are just fantastically well-engineered pieces of software.

But we’re not.  We may share our basic biologies with the animal world; and elements of our information-processing abilities may be mimicked (even bested) by machines.  But we are neither wallabies nor Watsons.  We don’t just feel; we emote.  We don’t just compute; we conceive.  We don’t just act; we choose.  Our reflections in a mirror mimic us too.  But they’re not us.

There’s a Purim thought here.

Because Amalek stands for meaninglessness.  From an Amalekian point of view, the world is, as they say, what it is; nothing more.  It offers no reason to imagine that we are something beyond animals who speak and wear clothes (and so what?) and analyze things (though not even as well as computers).  No reason to consider that there is good and bad, right and wrong, or some plan for history.

Klal Yisrael stands for the very opposite, the conviction that human beings are the pinnacle of creation, that they can consider and communicate not just wants, like animals, but ideas, concepts, truths.  And that a nation was chosen to be an example to the world of a human being’s highest aspiration, holiness.

And so let’s be wary of Watson, or at least of Watsonism.  And, amid all the cheering of the silicon emperor, let’s declare unabashedly that he has no soul.


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

Purim Bridges Religious Gaps in Israel

Tzohar to Hold Purim Celebrations in over 100 Locations across Israel

— Dena Wimpfheimer

As Israel’s leading organization working to bridge the gap between the religious and secular communities, Tzohar will be hosting Megilla readings and Purim celebrations in more than 100 locations throughout the country.

“All Israelis love the fun costumes and the traditional Purim partying” says Nachman Rosenberg, Executive Vice President for Tzohar. “Our programs aim to enrich the celebrations with meaningful Jewish values and show how Jewish Identity can become a source of national unity rather than separation.”

More after the jump.

Approximately 200,000 participants will be provided with a special Megillat Esther including the traditional text, pictures and explanations of the story of Purim and where the specific practices of the holiday, including giving charity and sending food baskets, come from.  Some readings even get theatrical, like the one organized by Steve Schwartz of Ginot Shomron, where acting and costumes are used to convey the Purim stories to those who might have limited familiarity with Jewish observance.

The Tzohar readings primarily take place in community centers or school gyms rather than synagogues to make it a more open and welcoming environment for the whole community. “Having it in a neutral place makes it a lot more comfortable for those who typically do not join religious services,” said Schwartz, formerly of Brooklyn, New York.

“Our goal is to help secular Israelis feel less alienated when it comes to Jewish practice and show them that there are many ways to embrace tradition and become involved with one’s Judaism,” said Rabbi David Stav, Chairman of Tzohar. “Purim, which has a social aspect on top of its religiosity, is the ideal time to spread that message.”

The “Together for Purim” program was inspired by Tzohar’s “Praying Together” Yom Kippur program which has been taking place for over 10 years and grows by thousands of participants each year.

“Israelis welcome a refreshing opportunity to embrace their Jewish Identity in a way that is not coercive or forceful” Rosenberg says.  “Programs such as this promote Jewish unity, a national value that is deeply existential in our eyes”.

Tzohar is an organization comprised of over 1000 Religious Zionist volunteer rabbis and educators working towards promoting and enhancing Unity & Jewish identity in the State of Israel.