How Tech Innovation Both Defines and Challenges Our Identity

Back in August, when I last posted for this blog, I was on my way to visit the URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy in Byfield, MA, for a day. I got to sit with some of the campers at lunch – a group of boys who were loving their film, robotic, and game design workshops. One of them told me that he’d seen a video about a robot that can write a Torah scroll in a fraction of the time it takes a human . Take a look at it here.

We took a moment to be in awe of some of the things that robots are being designed to do these days. But then, I have to admit, I needed to voice my discomfort at this particular example. It somehow felt less ‘holy’ to me to have a robot write a scroll. Why is that? If the robot can write more perfectly, why is that ‘less’? Is it something to do with the skill and effort of the traditional scribe? Or the sense that the scribe is the embodiment of over 2,000 years of tradition? On the other hand, this will certainly reduce the cost of a scroll, making Torah more accessible to Jewish communities around the world.  And then I started to wonder about things like the practice of the scribe going to the mikveh for a ritual immersion before filling in the names of God on a scroll. My lunch partner had a simple answer: ‘We could make the robot waterproof!’ But if the robot can’t make a mistake in writing out God’s name, why would that matter? And a robot can’t be ‘spiritually’ prepared to carry out an act, because it has no soul. Right?

The details of this case study are less important than the questions that it raises.  Kevin Kelly, author of ‘The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape our Future” presents the following insights:

… we’ve been redefining what it means to be human. Over the past 60 years, as mechanical processes have replicated behaviors and talents that we thought were unique to humans, we’ve had to change our minds about what sets us apart. As we invent more species of AI [artifical intelligence], we will be forced to surrender more of what is supposedly unique about humans… We’ll spend the next three decades – indeed, perhaps the next century – in a permanent identity crisis, continually asking ourselves what humans are good for. If we aren’t unique toolmakers, or artists, or moral ethicists, then what, if anything, makes us special?(p. 48-9)

Over the coming year and a half, I’ll be working with my congregation, with thanks to a grant we received from ‘Scientists in Synagogues’ to explore the impact of technologies on the human experience.  One of the things that I am excited about exploring is the way that we can bring some of the best of Jewish philosophical inquiry and the ways that our tradition has grappled with core questions of identity and meaning, to provide a different kind of approach to thinking about technological innovation.

So often, public debate ends up in the binary world of it is either a ‘good thing’ or a ‘bad thing’, but the reality is so much more complex than that. So often, the discourse describes technological change as something that is being done to us whereas, in fact, we are the source of technological innovation and experimentation. We have always sought new technologies that can help us to know more and create or do more than we can do with our own physical bodies.

Taken allegorically, the first bite from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, illustrates the ways that we are ‘hard-wired’ to enter into new and unknown territory in our quest to know more. Read in this light, we can then find countless examples of rabbinic midrashim and commentary that grapple with the fact that this desire brings about a more complex world, with bad coming along with the good. But ultimately, we don’t regard the eating from that tree as ‘original sin’; in Judaism it is presented more as an inevitable unfolding of human nature and our task, in the face of this reality, is to figure out how best to live in this ever-changing landscape, celebrating what it allows us to achieve, while being aware and finding ways to regulate the worst excesses of the dangers that it may present.

While the changes that are coming will, I am sure, be very unsettling at times, they also have enormous potential. It is clear that the questions that today’s technological innovation raise are age-old. In every generation, part of our religious tradition has been to reflect on the essence of who we are and what our purpose is. Today we need to draw on the wisdom of that tradition to help us grapple with new, unfolding realities, as much as we ever did.

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