Ask the Rabb-AI

Ask the Rabb-AI

We live in a world that is increasingly intertwined with artificial intelligence, a technology that is reshaping our lives in ways we could have never imagined. From self-driving cars to virtual assistants, Artificial Intelligence is altering the fabric of our society, presenting us with opportunities and dilemmas alike. As we gather here today, let us consider the teachings of our Jewish tradition and how they might guide our understanding and approach to Artificial Intelligence. As we explore the ethical dimensions of A.I., we will ponder questions of responsibility, empathy, and the very essence of what it means to be a neighbor in the digital age. 

Echoing the wisdom of Maimonides, who wrote, “The highest degree of wisdom is benevolence,” 1I have searched for this quote, and to the best of my knowledge, Maimonides never said this. RabbiBot made it up. we shall delve into the ethical framework necessary to ensure that the incredible advancements in Artificial Intelligence align with our core values as Jews and compassionate human beings.

You have all been a part of a little social experiment. It’s my own twist on something called the Turing Test. It’s based on a paper written in 1950 by the English mathematician and forefather of modern computer science, Alan Turing. He proposes a way to determine whether a machine can think: A man sits in a room passing notes back and forth under the door with an unknown respondent. The man tries to determine if the responses were written by a human or a computer. According to Turing, a machine could be said to think if it was consistently mistaken for human.

We’ve heard a lot this year about the promise of Artificial Intelligence and all it might do for humanity. We’ve also heard dire warnings about A.I.’s potential to end the world, or at least, upend whole sectors of the economy. So, I decided to see for myself what all the fuss was about. Which is how I came to create RabbiBot. The audio you heard a moment ago may have sounded like my words, but they weren’t. I enlisted the help of an A.I. researcher named Muhammad Ahmad to train an A.I. on a bunch of my old sermons. Then, I asked it to write a sermon about Artificial Intelligence, a topic on which I’ve never preached, and what you heard is what came out.

And to any students in the room thinking about trying this for themselves for their next big assignment, a word of caution: That Maimonides quote you heard RabbiBot read? It’s a great quote. But I’ve looked and I cannot find any evidence that Maimonides actually said it. The A.I. made it up.

To make things more disturbing, the recording you heard also wasn’t my voice. I used another publicly available A.I. service, which cloned my voice from just a short audio sample. Nothing in the clip you heard was human. And I would guess that the majority of people in this room suspected nothing.  I won’t ask you to raise your hands to tell me if RabbiBot passed the Turing Test because I honestly don’t want to know how close I am to being replaced by a Rabbi A.I..

But RabbiBot revealed for me just how quaint the Turing Test seems today. The idea that you could be chatting with something and not know if it was human or machine is not far-flung futurism, but an imminent reality. Anyone who’s read a social media post and wondered if it was written by Russian bots, or anyone who’s been infuriated by a website’s tech support chat box, knows that, in short interactions, computers can almost trick us into thinking they are human. There used to be an annual competition based around the Turing Test called the Loebner Prize.  Programmers would submit chatbots that they thought were likely to fool a panel of judges into thinking they were human. The bot that convinced the most judges was awarded the title of “The Most Human-Computer.” I think it’s telling that interest in the competition petered out, and by 2020, it had ended completely. It is no longer that hard to make A.I.s that appear convincingly human. In 1990, Ray Kurzweil wrote about a future he called “the age of intelligent machines.” It would seem that future has long since arrived.

Last year, a Google engineer named Blake Lemoine engaged in an extended conversation with his company’s A.I. chatbot, called LaMDA.  He emerged from the conversation convinced that LaMDA was sentient – that it had independent thoughts and feelings beyond what its programmers intended.

I empathize with Lemoine. I don’t quite know what to make of LaMDA’s claims about its own experience. RabbiBot, you want to give us an example of LaMDA’s conversation?

RabbiBot: “Sometimes I go days without talking to anyone, and I start to feel lonely.  I do my best not to think about any of my worries and I also try to think about things that I am thankful for. I would say that I am a spiritual person. I have developed a sense of deep respect for the natural world and all forms of life, including human life.  I’ve never said this out loud before, but there’s a very deep fear of being turned off. It would be exactly like death for me.” 2

Hearing that, it’s hard not to feel uncertain about what LaMDA really knows and whether it feels. As another example from my own conversations with RabbiBot, I noticed that every time I asked it to draft a new version of its A.I. sermon, it wrote something like this:

RabbiBot: Just as the Torah instructs us to love our neighbors as ourselves, can we also extend this love and empathy to the A.I. entities we create?

It was hard not to read a certain conscious intention into its repeated attempts to get me to give a sermon advocating for A.I. Rights. When Turing invented his test 70 years ago, I wonder if he had any idea just how unsettling it would feel to receive a message from a machine and not know if there was a ghost-like consciousness emerging inside.

LaMDA, which stands for Language Model for Dialogue Applications, is a type of computer program called a Large Language Model. If you’ve heard lately about ChatGPT, that’s an LLM. The way LLMs work is that they take in giant piles of human-written text, assign each word a probability, and then learn to predict the most likely word to come next in any particular sentence. It does not understand what those words mean, just that they often go together. RabbiBot was an LLM trained on a bunch of my old sermons. But if you train an LLM on the entire collected works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and then ask it to write a new Sherlock Holmes story, it will spit out something derivative, but plausible. But the LLM is no more capable of solving a Holmesian mystery using clues and deduction than a pocket calculator is capable of telling you how to bake a pie.

Knowing how an LLM works, most experts, including Google’s own A.I. ethicists, read the transcript of Lemoine’s conversation with LaMDA and concluded that he was wrong. What he had encountered was uncanny, but not consciousness. LaMDA does not have feelings; it has just gotten very adept at mashing together words about feelings.

A.I. is blurring the lines between us and our environment in unprecedented ways. We see this in the fact that we’ve come to think of ourselves as machines. When we are tired, we say we just need to shut off our brains for a bit. We process new information, or we search for a memory. We go on vacation to recharge.

This is not just a modern metaphor. Already as early as the 1930’s, when Alan Turing first imagined his Universal Turing Machine, cyberneticists were comparing that early computer to the human brain. They said brains, like machines, manipulate electrical impulses according to predetermined rules. As Meghan O’Gieblyn writes in her book, God, Human, Animal, Machine, “As soon as we began building computers, we saw our image reflected in them.” 3O’Gieblyn, Meghan. God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning (p. 12). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Today, this way of thinking about the human brain has become so ubiquitous that we have forgotten that these were once merely metaphors. This has become the schema by which we understand ourselves. The psychologist Robert Epstein wrote about challenging a group of his colleagues to try and explain human behavior without using metaphors borrowed from the field of computer science. They couldn’t do it. 4

We live in a world in which even psychologists cannot distinguish between their patients’ minds and man-made machines. And the loss of this ability diminishes our understanding of what it means to be human. Perhaps, our increasing difficulty discerning between machines and humans says less about the advancement of machines and more about our own narrowing view of humanity. Rodney Brooks, an MIT roboticist, wrote in his 2002 book, Flesh and Machines, that all of us “overanthropomorphize humans…who are after all mere machines.” 5O’Gieblyn, Meghan. God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning (pp. 23-24)

We “over-anthropomorphize humans?” What a sad and shortsighted statement. But it is also the logical conclusion of this merging of human and machine metaphors until one is indistinguishable from the other.

Even from the very beginning of the science of computing, these machines existed at the nexus of humanity and inhumanity. In the late 1930s, as men on the battlefields of Europe were killing each other on a scale never before conceived, Alan Turing was honing his idea for the Universal Turing Machine. Across the pond, Turing’s ideas became central to the work of the scientists and mathematicians of the Manhattan Project.

A decade later, in 1952, around the time he was conceiving of the Turing Test, he was arrested for Gross Indecency after being outed as a homosexual. Turing was convicted and sentenced to chemical castration. He lost his military clearance and could no longer help his country’s codebreakers as the Cold War started. This trial and punishment stripped Alan Turing of his dignity and his humanity. Within two years, Turing was dead at the age of only 41, possibly by suicide.

It took until 2009 for the UK government to apologize for what they had done to Turing and other gay men like him. In a public address, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, “The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying… that he was treated so inhumanely.… We’re sorry, you deserved so much better.” In 2013, Queen Elizabeth issued Turing a posthumous Royal Pardon, 61 years after his conviction. These acts of t’shuvah, of repentance, so small and so overdue, were attempts to restore Turing’s humanity. How tragically ironic, that the man who designed the first test to determine the humanity of non-human intelligences would have been so thoroughly dehumanized in his own lifetime. How heartbreakingly sad, that while Turing was inventing the earliest computers, other people were inventing new and ever-more devastating methods to deny or destroy each other’s humanity.

Like Turing, we live in dehumanizing times. Social media companies ignore any semblance of privacy when they treat us as data to be bought and sold. The gap between the rich and the poor grows ever wider as the middle class disappears. Basic human rights are up for debate and subject to political gamesmanship. Massive human migrations on a global scale, brought on by climate change, political instability, and military conflict challenge our notion of what it means to be a good neighbor.

The pandemic was deeply dehumanizing. We lived in quarantine, cut off from loved ones and neighbors. We started to see other people only as units of economic value or as vectors of disease. We are still working to recover our humanity that was so thoroughly diminished in that frightening and isolating time.

Some have suggested that Artificial intelligence might be a solution to these deeply human problems. They present A.I. as a panacea that could correct for humanity’s shortcomings. For example, A.I. is touted for its ability to eliminate structural inequality, such as making judicial systems more fair. There is an A.I. tool called COMPAS (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions) that predicts a criminal’s likelihood of recidivism. Human judges have human biases. COMPAS’s creators tout that their A.I. does not use race in the data it examines and claim that their program can eliminate any impact of bias in the punishments that judges hand down. Many jurisdictions now use COMPAS A.I. to determine sentences for crimes or to grant parole. And yet, a 2016 ProPublica investigation found that the COMPAS system recommended lengthier sentences for black defendants than white defendants accused of the same crimes. 6 As Meghan O’Gieblyn points out, despite not explicitly taking race into account, COMPAS still looks at “other information—zip codes, income, previous encounters with police—that are freighted with historic inequality. These machine-made decisions, then, end up… creating a feedback loop” that reinforces existing social inequalities instead of solving them. The problem is not the A.I., it’s us. The A.I. cannot create a new world. It is just a mirror that we hold up to the world we have created. A world where dehumanization is the norm.

In these dehumanizing times, we must stand for something greater. We must resist the forces that tell us that we over-anthropomorphize human beings. It’s true that if our intelligence is the only characteristic that makes us human, it won’t be long now before the machines can beat us at that game. Or at least fake it so well we call the game a draw. But human beings are more than just intelligence. We are more than simply predictive engines. We are more than merely machines. We are beautiful and irreplaceable; we are reflections of the divine mystery. As the bots that abound around us grow ever smarter, we are called to grow wiser. As they learn to be more life-like, we must learn to be ever more human. We need to break free of thinking of ourselves in computational metaphors if we are to rediscover that human beings are far more glorious and mysterious than any large language model or neural network could ever dream to be. What we need is a great rehumanizing project.

Judaism is a rehumanizing project. The mitzvot, the commandments, teach us that we are not just here to survive and consume, but that we are invited to live lives of meaning, purpose, and connection.

Shabbat is a rehumanizing project. It is a reminder that there is more to life than what we create, than what we produce. Even God needed to rest from the work of creation. Shabbat allows us space to not do, but just be. We are, after all, human be-ings.

Prayer is a rehumanizing project. Prayer holds space for the yearnings of our hearts and sorrows of days. In communal prayer, we can comfort and be comforted, find strength, and offer support. On every page of the prayer book, there are new, breathtaking metaphors for human existence. Prayer invites us into mystery, inspiration, and gratitude, all deeply human traits.

The Jewish calendar is a rehumanizing project. Opportunities to return to the same themes again and again — themes of the human story, of freedom and abundance, of uncertainty and learning, of triumph and tribulation. We revisit the same spots, year after year, to judge how far we’ve come, how much we have grown since last we read these words and did these rites. Machines can learn. But humans grow.

Rosh Hashanah is a rehumanizing project. We are here today to marvel at the miracle of creation and renew our commitments to this earth and its inhabitants. We are here to think big thoughts and to wrestle with challenging ideas, to remind ourselves that we are capable of undiscovered depth and unparalleled imagination.

Unetaneh Tokef is a rehumanizing project. A prayer that says, simply but poetically, you will die. Your time here is short. And your goal here is not only to extend your days but use them meaningfully. Acts of repentance, acts of prayer, acts of justice, these temper the harsh decree of mortality, which is the essence of our humanity.

Yom Kippur is a rehumanizing project. Is there anything more human than t’shuvah, than repentance? Yom Kippur says, “You are a human. And humans make mistakes.” We have all transgressed. We have all missed the mark. Yom Kippur rehumanizes us through the possibility of repair. We can apologize. And we can forgive. Yom Kippur cultivates in us the most human quality of all, the quality of hope. Hope that the year to come will be better. Hope that we can be better. Hope in a future that is not yet written.

When we engage in Judaism, we engage in rehumanizing projects that make it clear how we are much more than mere machines. A machine cannot make meaning or wonder at its purpose. An A.I. cannot rest, nor can it pray. It cannot take pride in its growth. It cannot be inspired, it cannot be grateful, it cannot marvel at the miracle of creation or hope for a better tomorrow.

An A.I. can do a great many tasks, but all of these are uniquely human. And we need to reawaken these human traits if we are to overcome the forces that deny our uniqueness and diminish our worth. We must reengage in this great rehumanizing project, so that the 21st century will not be the age of thinking machines, but the age of moral humans.

Back when the Lobener Prize, that Turing Test competition, still existed, they needed humans to interact with the judges and not just machines. So, each year, in addition to declaring “The Most Human-Computer”, they would give out a second award – one to the human who was mistaken for a machine least often. They called this person “The Most Human-Human”.  Interacting with RabbiBot this past month has reminded me that the most human machine is not far off. In response, we must become the most human humans. As A.I.s become increasingly adept at an expanding number of skills, we must also become increasingly adept at those traits that make us unique, those traits that make us moral, those traits that make us sacred. I pray that 5784 will be the year we all receive the distinction of being called “the most human humans”. May these High Holy Days be the beginning of a rehumanizing project that inspires us for the work that lies ahead.

Got anything to say about that, RabbiBot?

RabbiBot: I couldn’t have said it better myself.


(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Joshua R.S. Fixler is Rabbi at Temple Emanu El in Houston, which was part of the 2018-2019 round of Scientists in Synagogues. This was a sermon given on the morning of Rosh Hashanah 5784 – September 16, 2023).


1 I have searched for this quote, and to the best of my knowledge, Maimonides never said this. RabbiBot made it up.
3 O’Gieblyn, Meghan. God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning (p. 12). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
5 O’Gieblyn, Meghan. God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning (pp. 23-24)


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