Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, November 12, 2016
Rabbi Meira Chmiel
Smart phones. Smart computers. Machines that seem to have a mind of their own and take you where you don’t want to go, strong-arm you into a major upgrade that can take hours, and you can’t prevent it. Who’s in charge here? Apparently not you.
Now we’re creating autonomous cars to go with our smart streets. Our son has been recently shopping for an autonomous car. Thus, a recent South Bend Tribune article [“In Autonomous Cars, Lax Motorists A Danger”, Oct. 15, 2016, South Bend Tribune, reprint Los Angeles Times, by Russ Mitchell] caught my eye. There was a photo of a couple in the front seat of their car enjoying their smart phones while cruising along. Russ Mitchell of San Francisco had this to say:
Until recently, there was no question about who’s responsible for an automobile’s operation: the driver. One-hundred percent.
When driverless cars without a steering wheel or brake pedal start hitting the highway, your only role will be ordering the car where to go.
Between now and then…the relationship between drivers and their cars will enter uncharted and potentially hazardous territory. Robot-like features will take over an increasing share of the driving duties—but not all of them.
Humans and robots will share the wheel, and it’s uncertain how well people will adapt to this in-between state—whether they will remain appropriately vigilant or leave everything to the machine, possibly at their own peril. ..A recent State Farm survey [of drivers found] that if a semiautonomous car took over part of the driving duties, they’d eat, read, text, take pictures, and access the internet while driving. That would not be safe.
“There’s something we used to call split responsibility,” said.. the director of Columbia University’s Creative Machines Lab. “If you give the same responsibility to two people, they each feel safe to drop the ball. Nobody has to be 100%, and that’s a dangerous thing.”….
The in-between period could last awhile… In car-maker lingo, there are six levels that generally describe a vehicle’s driverless capability, from zero to five…. “From a technical perspective, there are really only two levels,” said.. an autonomous-driving executive at Volvo Car Group, “Whether the driver is responsible or not.”
This raised red flags for me—a lot of them. What kind of American future do I want for my children and grandchildren? Our rambunctious, do-it-your-own way society becoming highly programmed and self-contained, designed to keep everyone comfortable and safe in a uniform sort of way—like in the book “The Giver” or like in a nursing home. Cars with speed monitor chips inserted to keep people like me from creatively navigating the morning commute across town. Speaking for myself, if you turn me into a passenger again with a bossy robot for a chauffer who won’t even listen to a back-seat driver, I’ll just turn into a bowl of gelatin. I need to drive the vehicle myself to stay actively engaged. Responsible.
As these autonomous cars become increasingly smart, what will these human passengers become? Increasingly dumb? Or—zoom just slightly ahead—imagine we create robots to drive our buses, our taxies, fly our airplanes, work our assembly lines, police our streets, fight our wars, create and design new robots not just for us but for themselves too—giving rise to a whole new form of reproduction—capable of learning and becoming smarter, and, by sophisticated design, increasingly sentient and sensitive—what? Will we, their creator, become irrelevant to their ability to operate and autocorrect? Will we even become a hindrance to their efficient functioning and therefore a kind of “carbon-based contaminant” in their self-designed world, especially as they become more self-aware?
We have seen movies and read a number of science fiction scripts created in the last 200 years about robot-machines and drones and mutant super-beings that threaten to take over the world, even a whole star sector, doing their job too efficiently, perhaps recreating the world in their own image. Will they also acquire a soul? Will God’s Spirit be breathed into them? We don’t have very far to look for such plots: the opening chapters of our own Torah contain a few scenarios.
In Parashiot Bereshit and Noach, we can find four stories of the creation of the first humans, even a fifth story, not to mention land animals and birds, all of which become a living soul or nefesh. The version in chapter 1 opens with “In the Beginning” and tells us near the end, “And God said, Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness..”. Chapter 2, verse 4 begins a second version with: “These are the ‘Toldot’—the generations or begettings—of the heaven and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven… then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the nishmat hayyim—breath of life; and man became a living soul—nefesh hayah.” Later in this version God clones a companion for Adam by severing a part of his body and redesigning it to be a living complement, able to stand opposite. By chapter 5, a third version, combining aspects of the first two, begins: “This is the book of the ‘Toldot’—the generations or begettings—of Adam. In the day that God created man—or Adam—in the likeness of God created He them, and blessed them, and called their name Adam in the day when they were created. And Adam.. begot a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth.” The begettings of Seth and his descendants that follow do not refer any more to the image and likeness theme.
By chapter six, a different kind of generating emerges, a fourth version, that seems to take place after man has already reproduced a large population of his own kind and multiplied across the landscape, generating daughters as well as sons. Remember, the first female was a clone of the first Adam. These begotten daughters are attractive to certain unspecified beings called “the sons of God”, who select wives from the progeny of Adam according to their own personal inclination—choice.
At this point it seems that God has a conundrum. God says, “My spirit shall not abide in man forever, since he also is flesh; therefore his days are to be [limited to] a hundred and twenty years.” We begin to hear of Nephilim, a new breed, when the sons of God beget children with the daughters of Adam’s descendents, who grow up to become unusual men of physical stature and superior quality, powerful creative men—famous. But God also sees the corruption that develops and proliferates among these teeming human populations, generated by the unbridled, ever creative imagination and inventiveness of the human mind, supercharged with power and self-centeredness. And God wishes He had never created any of these living-soul creatures, and He exterminates all of them—almost.
By chapter 11, a final creation scenario emerges after the flood, once human begetting is underway again. One of the family clans of Noach, led by his great-grandson Nimrod, a famed “mighty hunter before the Lord” and possibly embodying the qualities of a Nephilim, collectively journeys east to the valley of Shinar. United by one language and idiom, they decide to stick together and avoid dispersion, avoid becoming scattered like so many of their relatives across a very vast earth. They propose to erect a city, later called Bavel. They undertake the building of not just the city but also a sky-scraper reaching far up into the very heavens, a feat that will make their name famous. This work of their hands will endure despite the limited life-span God has imposed upon each one of them.
We have here our first Biblical example of national unity with a unifying aspiration: so what could be wrong with that? Let’s examine that aspiration. How unifying is it?
Up to now, God’s emanation of his own progeny, Adam and his progeny have been designed by one means or another according to God’s own image and likeness. Now, the human collective seeks to override its human limitations by manufacturing its very first selfie—a towering tower reflecting the image and likeness not of God, but of man’s daydream about himself, his ego as a god. (Next thing on the agenda will be a robot—a man in man’s super-image!) God visits their construction site and tests the builders’ team cohesiveness by giving them the gift of diversity in spoken languages—the gift of tongues. In short time they find they cannot work together. They realize they only can function in fixed uniformity, not in pluralistic cooperation. And so they reject each other and abandon the team and go their separate ways, baffled.
Regarding these works of our hands, seriously!—are you sure you really want a robot driven world where you can tune out and just kill time? Given we could simulate the seven or so criteria that define life in designing and building a robot, what would make a human superior to such a robot? Does our conscious awareness, which we call mind or soul, and our intuitive conscience factor, which we call heart or spirit, and which in synergy alert us to be morally sensitive and responsible, set us apart from anything and everything we could construct? When we do check out mentally, leave our bodies on auto-pilot, unsupervised, what happens? The body continues to operate based on the habits we have programmed into its operation. Peculiar things can happen, like a tin can cast into the soup, its contents poured out into the trash. Similarly, an army unit, trained like a machine to follow orders unquestioningly, may commit an atrocity. What’s to prevent it?
Yes, it is useful to us that we invent and use computer brains as tools which speed up our data processing while we mastermind a bigger project. As long as our processors don’t invade our desk top. For if we abdicate our responsibility, these helpers whom we have created may someday strong-arm us into a massive societal upgrade designed to keep all of us collectively safe and well-monitored, running smooth as clocks, highly supervised, prevent us from speeding faster than the speed limits of our smart streets or from making split-second, off-the-wall decisions, like with our bank accounts and wall-street investments.
The acts of abdication of responsibility can be very gradual and deceptive and not seem to be making any difference until it’s too late. Like giving over too much authority to the Feds, so you can blame them. Be vigilant and wary, and remember: it might be necessary for us to activate our emergency override—sof l’kha—drop our fascinating, addictive smart phones and these other technological works of our hands and take our leave of Ur, of Bavel, of Haran and other high-tech life-styles as Avram did, and to lekh l’kha ourselves to a simpler place—an unknown place—that God will show each of us, a place where we can find time alone in our intimate connections and become a blessing there. Give up trying to magnify what we are in this world and find out instead how God, our prime director, chooses to use our name and our talented hands and far seeing imaginations. Be prepared for surprises along the way.
Lekh L’kha and Shabbat Shalom