by Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman

First of all, some exciting news — you will now be able to find some of these blogposts on the The Huffington Post’s “Religion” section! My last post has gotten quite a buzz, with over 400 comments, and you can see it here.

But I’m sure this is what you really came to learn about:

I’ve been a fan of “Jeopardy!” since I was in middle school, and I took (and even passed) the test to be on “College Jeopardy!” when I was a senior. So I’ve been very excited and interested to see what happens with IBM’s Watson this week, as it battles Ken Jennings (he of the 74-game winning streak) and Brad Rutter (he of the highest prize winnings on the show).

Watson’s big test has been to see if computers can become “intelligent.” Humans (and even most animals) can be seen as “intelligent” in some form– they gain new knowledge, they learn from mistakes, and they experiment with trial and error. The question surrounding Watson is — can a computer be seen as intelligent?

That’s actually much harder than it looks. As human beings, part of our intelligence is our ability to understand statements without much context — “Hey, did you get my e-mail?” is often perfectly understandable, because we know the reference point. But computers don’t have context, and often tell us things that are totally unrelated to what we are looking for.

And that’s why Watson’s challenge has been to see if it can win on “Jeopardy!” — it’s a show where the clues are often ambiguous (if not downright misleading), and so if Watson can get those types of answers right, it will be a big step towards an “intelligent” computer.

But to me, Watson’s “Jeopardy!” challenge leads to a deeper question — is “intelligence” the same thing as “wisdom”? Or, to phrase it another way, if computers can become “intelligent,” is there any way they could become “wise”?

And here, I would say “no.” Wisdom, in my mind, entails knowing what questions to ask in the first place. Watson may be able to get all the answers right — but only humans know how to ask the right questions.

That’s something that Judaism has had a long history with. Ever since the time of the Rabbis, Jewish tradition has tried to come up with the kinds of questions that would challenge us to look at things more closely, to see what we can learn from them, and to examine topics from multiple perspectives.

My favorite example comes from the story of Noah, who is described in the book of Genesis as being righteous “in his generation.” It’s actually a totally unnecessary phrase, but rather than ignoring it, the Rabbis focused on it, and asked, “Why is it even in there in the first place? What does it mean that he was righteous ‘in his generation’?”

Well, we know the generation of the flood was pretty bad (they were all killed). So maybe Noah was simply the best of a bad lot. But on the other hand, we also know how hard it is to be a decent person when everyone around us is behaving badly (I live in New York, so I can tell you some great subway-shoving stories). So maybe Noah was incredibly righteous — after all, he was able to be righteous even in his generation. (Genesis Rabbah)

Which is it? Was Noah righteous, or wasn’t he? Well, it all depends on how we read the text — and so there’s no clear, single, correct answer. And that’s the real hallmark of wisdom — to know what questions to ask in the first place, and then to recognize that there may be a multitude of responses to them.

Indeed, the biggest and most important questions we face for us and our world are ones that don’t have a simple, correct answer, the way a “Jeopardy!” question does: “How can we most effectively address global poverty?” “What’s the appropriate role for government?” “How should we respond to the new reality in the Middle East?” Those are questions where information and intelligence are necessary — but they are not sufficient. Instead, it takes wisdom to know what questions to ask in the first place, in order to make a difference for ourselves and our world. And only human beings know how to do that.

So yes, Watson is crushing the carbon-based competition, and may even be showing that computers can become “intelligent.” But we can feel comforted by the fact that one of the uniquely human gifts we have is our ability to pose the kinds of questions that make things like Watson even possible.