The Silicon Emperor’s New Soul

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“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.

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.


© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

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

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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