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When a Jewdroid Walks into Shul (Part 1)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 @ 10:09 AM
posted by Roger Price
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Credit: Jewish Museum Berlin

In a short story written expressly for inclusion in a groundbreaking anthology of Jewish science fiction and fantasy, Wandering Stars (Jewish Lights, 1974), the British writer William Tenn imagined a future galaxy populated with Jews who, consistent with their ancestors’ history, traveled far and wide in search of a better life. Among these Jews, or at least creatures who claimed to be Jews, was a certain group of small, brown pillow shaped beings covered with grey spots out of which protruded tentacles. Residents of the fourth planet in the Rigel star system (Rigel being a star in the Orion constellation as seen from Earth), they claimed to be Jewish by descent from a community of Orthodox Jews who lived in and around Paramus, New Jersey. Their non-human appearance was the result, they said, of natural relationships, over time, with the native inhabitants of their new planet. In Tenn’s tale, the Bulbas, as they were known, traveled to Venus in the year 2859 C.E. in order to participate in the First Interstellar Neo-Zionist Convention which was convened for the purpose of discussing a renewed claim to Israel, an area on Earth then free of all Jews. The question presented was whether the Bulbas could be accredited as Jews.

While set some eight centuries in the future, Tenn’s story asked age old questions about the nature of Jewishness. And if the context of the story seems far ahead of our times, the reality is that the pace of discovery regarding potential life on other planets continues to accelerate. After all, the existence of the first exoplanet, that is, a planet that is outside of our solar system and orbits its own host star, was not confirmed until 1995. Today we have identified over 3,300 such planets. The first exoplanet in a habitable zone was not found until 2010. Today we know of at least 49 such planets.  In 2014, the first Earth sized exoplanet in a habitable zone was discovered.  Within the past couple of months, we have found a potentially habitable exoplanet in the star system closest to Earth, that of Proxima Centauri.

At a distance of just over 4.2 light years from Earth, though, Proxima Centauri is still almost 25 trillion miles away. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, traveling over 36,000 miles per hour, would still need over 78,000 years to reach it. Obviously Earth bound readers of this essay will not be alive when the first probe to Proxima Centauri reports its findings. But dramatic advances in technology are raising the issue of Jewishness in yet another context. If the claim of the geographically distant Bulbas, who did not resemble our species in the slightest, was challenging, how will we consider the Jewishness of an android, a robot designed to look like us, and programmed with considerable intelligence, artificial though it may be? 

Of course, the idea of artificial beings has been with us for millennia, originally in the form of ancient myths and musings from numerous disparate communities, including what are now India, Greece, Scandinavia and China. Subsequently, efforts were made to fashion the imagined characters. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), for instance, produced sketches of mechanical knights in armor.

In order to protect his sixteenth century community, Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1513-1609), the Maharal of Prague, reportedly created an artificial being from clay and brought it to life by invoking God’s name. Subsequently, this being, this Golem, caused trouble and Rabbi Loew had to put it to rest. But the Maharal was not the first Jew alleged to have formed a human-like being. A passage in the Talmud states that Rabbah created a “man” and sent him to Rav Zera who spoke to him but received no answer. Talmud being Talmud, the passage is somewhat obscure and may have been intended as metaphor, though the great commentator Rashi (1040-1105) seems to have treated it as true and attributed the creation to a mystical invocation of God’s name. Either way, clearly the writer envisioned the creation by a human of a “man.” (See Sanhedrin 65b.)

Modern humanoid robots, indeed, the word robot itself, trace to the Czech author Karel Capek’s 1921 drama R.U.R, which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word robot is, in fact, an English variant on the Czech robota, meaning forced labor. Since R.U.R., robots have become a fixture in popular art forms like short stories, novels, movies, radio and television.  In the 1960s, for instance, Rosie served as a maid in The Jetsons, a popular animated television show, and the robot from Lost in Space, another television series, was an important part of the spaceship crew. Subsequently, the portrayals have been more varied and textured.

As seen in the Star Wars movie saga, at a time long ago, in a distant galaxy, far, far away, an autonomous droid identified as C3PO, with the size and somewhat of the shape of an adult human, could, among other attributes, translate over seven million forms of communication and assist in matters of protocol and etiquette.  Set a thousand years into the future, another clearly mechanical character with humanoid features, Bender Bending Rodriguez, Sr., aka Bender, stars in the animated television sitcom Futurama as one who was trained as a metal bender, but works for a cargo delivery service, and is prone to drinking, smoking cigars, and womanizing with both humans and female robots.  In the computer animated movie, WALL-E, the last robot on unpopulated Earth, is a Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth class, who after centuries of being alone, notices an attractive probe-bot named EVE and adventure ensues.

For all their charm, though, with their mechanical heads and other appendages, C3PO, Bender and Wall-E, are each distinctly not human. By stark contrast,  Lt. Commander Data, from the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and David, from the movie A.I., Artificial Intelligence, look like us. They have their quirks (don’t we all), but if you did not know they were not natural born and carbon based, that their insides consisted of chips and circuits, with silicone everywhere, you would not have guessed.

Both would have passed the Turing Test, an evaluation of machine intelligence in which a subject is asked a series of questions by a judge who is seeking to determine whether the subject is human. If the subject has been programmed sufficiently, then the judge will not be able to distinguish the machine with artificial intelligence from a real human. In other words, the subject would pass the Turing Test.

The movie Ex Machina provides a twist to the Turing test. As the Turing Test was originally designed, the interrogator would pose questions in writing to two subjects, one being human and one not. Both would then respond in writing. In this way, the interrogator’s decision about the subject’s ability to think like a human would not be biased by either visible or aural clues as to the true nature of the subject.  In Ex Machina, however, Ava’s artificial composition is not hidden. Through her transparent neck, torso and limbs, many of her internal components are plainly visible. Nor is her ability to think and move like a human in any doubt from the first time that a computer programmer named Caleb, playing the role of interrogator, sees her through a glass partition. Rather, a primary question posed by the meetings of Caleb and Ava, a physically attractive android, is whether one or both would be as emotionally drawn to the other as humans might be.

Not surprisingly, life is imitating art and the age of the robots is, in fact, rapidly approaching. In 2000, Honda introduced ASIMO, a mobile android. The current version has facial, voice and posture recognition capabilities, can communicate with humans, and not only walks, but also runs. Not to be outdone, in 2007 Toyota produced a violin playing robot which displayed such sufficient arm strength and hand dexterity that it could play a violin and even achieve, Toyota claimed, vibrato similar to that accomplished by humans. Other humanoid robots can be seen here.

Robots have, in fact, proven capable of engaging successfully in a wide range of activities. NASA has sent a robot, or, more accurately, a robonaut into space on a shuttle mission, and claims that its Robonaut 2 series has dexterous hand movement “approaching” that of a human. NASA also plans to send a Robonaut 5, aka Valkyrie, to help explore Mars. Meanwhile, back on Earth, nurse robots have been deployed to assist elderly patients, and greater usage has been planned. Knightscope robots have been placed in service recently as security guards in parking lots, corporate headquarters and other facilities, with the ability to record, store and send video, read license plates, and, through thermal imaging, locate humans in restricted areas. Two years ago, at the Jewish Museum Berlin, a robot demonstrated that it could write a Torah scroll, all 260 feet of it, flawlessly.

Physical agility is impressive, of course, as are recognition technologies, but can a robot think both strategically and tactically? In the last two decades, two exercises demonstrated the power of artificial intelligence. In 1996 and 1997, the reigning world chess champion Gary Kasparov battled an IBM computer named Deep Blue. Kasparov won the first match (4-2), but lost the second (3.5-2.5). Kasparov’s defeat was subsequently rationalized as the result of his bad play or the limited intellectual challenge of chess itself, but the fact remains that Deep Blue for the first time beat a human champion in a difficult contest.

The ancient game of Go, while deceptively simple to learn, is considerably more complex than is chess. The game is played on a board filled with squares, nineteen across and nineteen down. Players, one with black stones and one with white, place their stones at the intersections on the board, the object being to surround and capture the opponent’s stone and thereby control more territory. As there are 361 intersections on the board, one player starts with 181 stones and the other begins with 180, and the number of possible board positions is incredibly large. In fact, that number was only determined this year and approximates 10170 positions, far more than the number of atoms in the universe.

In March, 2016, artificial intelligence known as AlphaGo beat world champion Go player Lee Sedol  (4-1). Created by DeepMind and acquired by Google, AlphaGo was programmed to learn from mistakes and teach itself how to succeed. This victory was extraordinarily significant. It demonstrated more than mere computing strength, and displayed the state of “deep learning,” a form of artificial intelligence architecture which, in a rudimentary way, mimics human neural networks and allows a machine to learn by observation, data collection and analysis, in other words, like humans do.

At the same time, while AlphaGo was surprisingly successful, artificial neural networks are still “about a million times smaller than the brain,” with its 1,000 trillion neuron connections, or synapses. Consequently, although it would be hyperbolic to say that the future of artificial intelligence is unlimited, the prospects envisioned even now are truly stunning. (See, e.g., here, here and here.)

Advances in robotics, in mobility, dexterity and intelligence, are raising the question about what it means to be human and Jewish. To our more parochial concern, if a robot can play the violin, compete a high level at chess and write a Torah scroll, why can’t a robot be Jewish?  Assume that the android looks human, is at least as mobile as ASIMO, and is thoroughly familiar not only with Jewish foundational texts like the Torah, the rest of the Tanakh and the Talmud, but also all that followed, up to and including today’s Jewish literature and philosophies. Assume further that it has a complete grasp of Jewish history from its roots in the first millennia B.C.E. through the demographics of various resulting Jewish communities today. Why can’t that droid be Jewish?  Why can’t it have a Jewish name, like Enosh ben Yehuda v’Rut, be called to read as a bot mitzvah, be counted in a minyan and sit on a shul board?

Objections to a Jewdroid are numerous, ranging from the silly to the sacred.  They include arguments based on appearance, on ritual, on descent, on speciesism and on foundational philosophy.  So, shall we reject the Jewdroid whose existence is unprecedented or shall we welcome the stranger?  We’ll consider the arguments in our next installment.


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