Sign In Forgot Password

Sermons

 

Artificial Intelligence -
What Does It Mean to Be Human?

 Rabbi Shoshanah Tornberg
Yom Kippur 5784 - September 25th, 2023
 

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and congregants,
As we gather here today 
on this sacred occasion of Yom Kippur, 
the Day of Atonement, 
we come to reflect not only 
on our individual deeds and misdeeds 
but also on what it means 
to be human 
in an age of rapid technological advancement, 
particularly the rise of artificial intelligence. 
In this era, 
where algorithms and machines increasingly shape 
our daily lives, 
it is essential to ponder 
the very essence of our humanity.

Yom Kippur is 
a time of deep introspection, 
a time when we confront our flaws 
and seek forgiveness and renewal. 
But in the context of our modern world, 
we must also confront the profound questions 
about what defines us as human beings, 
what distinguishes us 
from the creations of silicon and steel, 
and how we can preserve our unique human essence 
in an age of AI.
. . .
As we stand on this threshold 
between tradition and innovation, 
let us open our hearts and minds 
to the profound questions that surround us. 
How does our faith inform our response 
to the rapid advancements in AI 
and the potential ethical challenges they pose? 
What are the moral responsibilities 
that accompany our technological achievements, 
and how can we ensure 
that they do not compromise 
our shared humanity?
. . .
Together, 
let us embark on this spiritual and intellectual journey, 
seeking to renew our connection with the divine,
 our fellow human beings, 
and ourselves, 
as we contemplate what makes us 
truly human in the age of AI.


    So … what did you think of my introduction? 
    Was it interesting? 
    On point? 
    Well-written? 
    Did it catch your attention? 

    
    The thing is, it wasn’t my work.  
    I didn’t write that. 
    What you have heard up until now 
    was written by Chat GPT.
    In other words, 
    these remarks were written 
    by a generative, 
    large language model 
    Artificial Intelligence. 
    An “AI.”
    
    Could you tell it was written by a machine? 
    Maybe. 
    
    Did it matter? 
    Perhaps.
    
    How does that make you feel?
    
    What does that make you think about?
    
    What does it inspire?
    
    What does it make you fear?
    
    And perhaps most importantly: What does it make you ask?
    
    The AI-generated sermon was much shorter 
    than one I would draft. 
    (Sorry). 
    But, it was not without relevant content and passable style. 
    I certainly don’t usually start with 
    “Ladies and Gentlemen.” 
    And odds are that next year, 
    it would generate a better sermon. 
    AI is always learning.
    
    
Let’s start again.
L’Shanah Tovah and Good Yontif.
On Rosh HaShanah we celebrated 
the creation of the world. 
God is the Creator, 
and we are God’s creation. 
And, we are created in the image of God.
We are, in fact, God-like.
Does that mean we can create life?
And if we can,
in whose image will that creation be made?

PAUSE

There is a legend that many of you may know. 
Please oblige me as I summarize it. 
In the 1500’s, 
in time of Rabbi Judah Loew –
also known as the Maharal – 
the Jewish community of Prague was in danger. 
They faced violent anti-Semitism, 
and they needed protection. 
In response Rabbi Loew created a creature, 
known as a Golem, 
to defend them. 
Through alchemical, almost magical means 
drawn from the mystical Sefer Ha-Yetzirah 
(the Book of Creation), 
the Maharal crafted the Golem’s body from clay 
and animated it by writing three Hebrew letters 
on its forehead. 
These letters spelled the Hebrew word, “Emet,” 
which means, “truth.” 
The use of language 
seemed to render it or him as human,
sort of. 

The Golem did the rabbi’s bidding, 
and was able to defend the Jews, 
but eventually, 
the Maharal lost control of his creation. 
This now-monster became violent and terrifying, 
and Rabbi Loew was forced to destroy him – 
or it. 
He removed the letter aleph 
from the monster’s forehead, 
leaving just the letters for the word, 
“meit” – 
meaning dead.
Legend has it that the golem remains 
in an extra-large coffin 
in the attic of the Altneuschul –
an ancient synagogue –
in Prague today. 
It waits there 
ready to be reactivated if necessary. 
In fact, 
they claimed it was still there 
when I visited the shul years ago 
on a trip to the Czech Republic.

This tale has motifs familiar to all of us, 
as it was the inspiration 
for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. 
Both tales touch on the trepidation we feel 
when we get too close to a role 
traditionally seen as beyond human,
in which we create something –
something beyond human.

Are we prepared to be a creator 
and to manage all of the consequences? 
Are we able to remain in control 
and maintain stability, safety, and moral values? 
Will we be able to ensure a 
just and equitable society 
if so much, 
(or perhaps all), 
of our economic, social,  >>
and political procedures, decisions, and outputs 
are crafted through artificial means? 
The Golem of the legend is, 
as journalist Sigal Samuels puts it, 
an artificial, language-based model 
that becomes animate, 
sentient, 
and perhaps has a soul. 

President and CEO of EqualAI, Miriam Vogel, 
shares that artificial intelligence, 

– PAUSE –

“refers to the development 
of computer systems 
capable of performing tasks 
that typically require human intelligence.” 

PAUSE

She goes on, 

PAUSE

“It involves the creation of algorithms
 and models 
that enable machines to analyze data, 
learn from it, 
make decisions, 
and perform actions 
that mimic human cognitive functions” 
(Moment, Summer 2023, “Is Artificial Intelligence Good for Humanity?”). 

PAUSE

At this point in AI research and development, 
artificial intelligence grows exponentially more powerful 
and more capable 
every hour. 
The fact that emerging machines can learn 
means they will always be getting better at human tasks –
including human intelligence and human social skills –
until they fully master them. 

As artist, 
researcher, 
and Jewish scholar, David Zvi Kalman, puts it,

– PAUSE –

 “there is an ever-shrinking list of tasks 
that only humans can do” 
(Moment, Summer 2023, “Is Artificial Intelligence Good for Humanity?”).

– PAUSE –

    
    This holiest of days 
    is a time for us to reflect on the meaning 
    of what it means to be human –
    and humanity is reaching a kind of crisis point 
    with regard to what makes humans distinct 
    and different from other beings – 
    even non-biological ones. 
    
    Max Tegmark, 
    the AI scholar, 
    in his book Life 3.0 
    identifies three stages of life.

 ●    Life 1.0 is the biological stage. 
These beings have the ability to survive 
and replicate themselves. 
This stage arrived on earth 
about 13.8 billion years ago.
●    Life 2.0 is the cultural stage. 
Beings in this stage are able 
to survive 
and replicate themselves 
and also to use knowledge 
and mental systems 
to process information 
and make decisions. 
We arrived here about 4 million years ago.
●    Tegmark calls Life 3.0 the technological stage: 
Beings in this stage 
are able to survive and replicate; 
they are able to use available information 
to process and make decisions, 
and, 
crucially, 
they are even able to redesign themselves – 
that is, their bodies–
or, in this case, 
their hardware.

 AI researchers think 
    that Life 3.0 may arrive 
    in our lifetimes, 
    certainly in this century.
    
    This means that soon 
    we will be entering an age 
    of machines 
    in which our whole conception of life, 
    the soul, 
    identity, 
    consciousness, 
    will, 
    and morality 
    will be called into question. 
    Machines are being built 
    to be able to learn, 
    design, 
    and make decisions. 
    (They already know how to build). 
    And, though we may not be surprised to learn 
    that machines may catch up with human intelligence, 
    what will it mean for us 
    and our world 
    that they will likely exceed it?
“Come on, Rabbi,” you say. 
“We’ve been here before. 
There is always some kind of 
new technology.  
Think about the industrial revolution 
and the fear that automation 
would take all the jobs. 
Think of the advent of the internet. 
We thought we would cease interacting in person. 
That all the stores would close, 
and our economy would collapse.  
Remember Y2K? 
Nothing really happened. 
And, most recently, 
our ramp up to Zoom 
made us question the value 
of being physically present. 
What does it mean that I 
can be virtually present 
in multiple places 
at the same time? 

Wave to people online

When there is a new technology, 
people always freak out, 
and then ultimately come around 
and see the benefits. 
Is this time any different?

Many AI researchers ask these very questions: 
Is this time like 
the invention of the printing press, 
changing our relationship to text, 
literacy, 
and mass communication; 
or is it more like 
the Copernican Revolution, 
fundamentally changing the way 
that we understand the role 
and uniqueness 
of humans in the universe? 
Will this be the beginning 
of our understanding of human intelligence 
as just one kind of intelligence 
that is out there?

The Swedish philosopher, 
Nick Bostrom, 
believes that this time is fundamentally different. 
He writes, 

– PAUSE –

“You could compare it to the Industrial Revolution, 
but that might even underplay it. 
Maybe compare it to 
the rise of the human species in the first place.
It could be the last invention that 
we humans will ever need to make; 
the superintelligence [of AI] 
would be doing the rest of the inventing 
much better than we can” 
(Moment, Summer 2023, “Is Artificial Intelligence Good for Humanity?”).

– PAUSE –

The question of what makes us human 
is getting harder to answer. 
And the issue of whether or not AI can become 
a “person” 
becomes murky. 
As, my colleague Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, 
of the organization Sinai and Synapses, 
puts the question, 
does AI have a neshama – a soul? 

On the face of it, 
we want to say, 
‘no, of course no;’ 
but the question suggests  >>
we may need to start thinking more deeply 
about what makes up the human soul  >>
and human consciousness  >>
in the first place. 

If there can be another kind of consciousness, 
then what makes ours distinctly human? 

Humans can be seen in our tradition 
as the first form of artificial intelligence: 
Kalman, 
among others, 
points out that 
we can understand Adam 
as the first artificial intelligence: 
God breathed life into a lump of clay,
 – a grouping of molecules – 
that utilized its structure 
to develop intelligence.  

An important moral issue that we need to consider 
is how to identify the moral status of AI. 
Does sophisticated AI have personhood? 
Should it? 
Do machines operating AI systems have rights? 
Do they have liabilities? 
Who is at fault 
when a self-driving car gets into an accident?

I know what you are thinking: 
That’s ridiculous. 
They are not human. 

But corporations have personhood under the law. 
What if we are coming 
to the end of the age 
when intelligence 
was the marker of human exceptionalism? 
What happens when AI 
outperforms us 
in intelligence tasks, 
problem-solving, 
creativity, 
and even the building of social connections? 

If it is intelligent, 
is it a life form? 
We have historically defined life as 
biologically based.
But why? 
Perhaps that definition 
will become an outmoded way 
of understanding existence. 
Author Etgar Keret points out that AI is, 

– PAUSE –

“going to expose the meaninglessness of our existence. 
We will not be able to define our purpose  >>
by our ability to contribute to the world, 
because our contribution won’t be needed” (ibid). 

– PAUSE –

In other words, 
more and more 
of what we do as humans 
will be done better 
by artificial intelligence.


– PAUSE –

Many thinkers have ably grappled  >>
with the meaning of being human, 
and some of their thoughts  >>
are germane to this discussion. 

Contemporary philosopher 
Mary Anne Warren 
defines humanness through five traits:

1. Consciousness or sentience. 
This refers to the ability to have 
conscious experiences, 
including the ability 
to feel pain. 
The feeling of pain is necessary, 
for if one cannot experience pain,
one surely cannot act with knowledge 
of how others live in the world.

2. Reason 
This is our ability 
not just to make rational decisions, 
but also to compare various rational paths 
and choose one that meets the specific, 
often ineffable needs 
of the situation. 
There may be more than one way to respond 
to a grieving person, 
for example, 
but, according to Warren, 
reason is required 
if we are to assess what approach 
meets the needs of the moment, 
situation, 
relationships,
or persons involved. 

3. Self-motivated activity. 
A person can direct their own actions –
we can make decisions for ourselves.
And we can engage in the world  >>
in sync with those decisions.

4. Communication. 
We are able to express our thoughts 
and feelings, 
and we are able to interpret those of others 
as they are expressed.

5. Self-awareness. 
We understand ourselves as conscious, 
sentient, 
and wakeful 
to our environment and reality 
(Matrix fantasies aside).

For Warren, 
these traits of personhood are pre-requisites for  >>
perceiving morality  >>
and acting as a moral agent.

Another thoughtful approach to personhood and humanness 
comes from philosopher Edmund Husserl. 
Husserl’s conception of personhood says that  >> 
we each have a sphere of mine-ness 
in which we look at the world  >>
through our own spheres; 
We recognize that the world is our world, 
each of us, 
because we are the ones doing the perceiving. 
I am looking through my eyes; 
feeling through my senses; 
Moving with my body. 

Further, 
Each of us recognizes others in the world,
others just like me – 
that is,
others who are also themselves  >>
looking through their eyes  >>
at the same things I am looking at,
in the same world that I occupy. 

We are all capital “I”s. 

As in Warren’s thinking, 
for Husserl, 
it is empathy 
that rouses our moral self. 
When I see other selves like myself, 
I will treat them 
with the same humanity 
that I treat myself 
and that I want others 
to do for me. 

Empathy is fundamental 
To our humanity. 


A Jewish thinker who weighs in on  >>
this central issue of what makes us human persons  >>
is Martin Buber. 
One of his most well-known ideas teaches 
that what makes us human 
is our ability to have 
I-Thou encounters,
as he describes in his book
Ich und Du,
I and You. 

An I-You relationship
is a mode of being in which you 
are fully present fully with another,
fully in relation with them, and
At that moment,
putting aside all experiences of objects,
of what we think of as mine.
All objectiveness is set aside, 
and we encounter the other 
face-to-face.  

– SIGNIFICANT PAUSE –

I don’t have an answer to the question 
of what makes us human, 
at least not one that I believe 
will stand the test of time
Likely, on next Yom Kippur, 
even though I will be fasting, 
I would need to eat my words. 

Because, you see,
developments in generative AI capability 
are changing so quickly 
that our ideas about humanness will be changing, too. 
It is hard to see, 
as Wayne Gretzky said of hockey, 
not where the puck is, 
but where the puck is going. 
So the answers to our question,
“What makes us human?”
will itself develop
as humanity and AI develop, 
Together,
 over time.

But on this Day of Awe, 
I want us to think about 
the things we value 
about humanness. 
Kalman points out that 
humans may find we are valuable simply 
in and of ourselves. 
In the same way that 
we are each created with a divine spark –
an ineffable and uncanny fire 
that causes us to be –
so are we precious and important 
in our own right –
much as a life partner or spouse is special 
because of the unique commitment and relationship 
that we make with them. 

Even if there are, 
or will be, 
other forms of life, 
other life forms –
that can do many of the things that we can –
perhaps even better than we – 
this does not obviate the meaning of 
human living. 

We do not need to be  >>
the only ones with a particular trait  >>
for us to matter. 
Our emotional worlds, 
our goal-setting, 
our relationships,
our insight,
our wisdom . . . 

all these are muddied by machine capabilities, 
but they remain key ingredients 
in what we value about ourselves.

NOW WHAT?

This is the season of teshuvah. 
We spend these days asking 
deep questions about our moral stature, 
our choices, 
and our deeds. 
We know we have 
a moral duty to each other, 
to the world, 
and to God –
however we understand God. 
It remains, for now, 
uniquely true 
that the need we have 
to reflect on our deeds 
and to transform through repentance, 
to seek forgiveness 
and to pursue the guidance of our moral compasses, 
are treasured aspects of human being. 

My time here at KI has just begun, 
yet some of you have already had the chance  >>
to celebrate or remember with me  >>
through a life cycle event. 
Whether it was a wedding, 
a funeral, 
an unveiling, 
or a b. mitzvah, 
we have begun to build 
spiritual connections, 
And a spiritual community,
together. 
In a conversation about AI, 
Rabbi Mitelman pointed out something very wise: 
We rabbis like to think that 
we are both authentic and creative; v
valid and original. 
But, the truth is, 
there are only so many permutations of Jewish liturgy 
that we can bring 
to these moments of meaning. 
The truth is, 
what we bring –
and here I am speaking of not just clergy, 
but rather of any of us,
of all of us –
is the human presence with which we show up. 
The uniqueness of how each of us
is
when with the other.
Though our tools will become more complex 
and more integrated into our lives 
in the near future, 
we,
as individuals, 
as humans,
bring a presence of soul 
that exists with its own, sacred meaning.

The Golem is being revived. 
Its forehead bears the mark of truth –
Emet – once again. 
And it is likely that this time we cannot erase the aleph.
But, 
though all the letters of truth 
shine forth from his brow, 
he cannot hold the only truth,
the whole truth. 

We hold … our humanity … as sacred.  

Sat, May 18 2024 10 Iyyar 5784