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Valuing humanity, Judaism must reject transhumanism

Danny Schiff
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Published: 28 March 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

In his new book on Judaism in the Digital Age, RABBI DANNY SCHIFF argues that, with all their vulnerabilities, humans have a worth that cannot be matched by AI or augmented humanity.

Imagine lying on a riverbank on a late summer afternoon and gazing up at the sky as you feel the warm sun ener­gize you. Simultaneously, your mind contemplates the shape of the clouds and then wanders to consider what you seek to achieve in the year ahead.

Could we design AI that might desire to lie on a riverbank, be energized by the sun, contemplate the clouds, and then let its “mind” spontaneously wander to consider its ambitions? Even if this were to prove possible, it seems unlikely that we would bother. We have no need to create day­dreaming AI that lies on riverbanks and reflects. This is particularly true given that, without consciousness, AI would never engage in real reflec­tion, and the goal of constructing AI with human-like conscious­ness is likely to be unreachable.

The human mind is so intricate and astonishing that it is a powerful testament to human uniqueness.

In all likelihood, we represent an exceedingly unusual flickering of intelligence in the universe as a whole. It appears certain, moreover, that the type of intelligence that humans possess does not exist anywhere else; should the flame be extinguished, it will never again be rekindled.

Jews are man­dated to expand the Divine image in the world, not to lessen it. That goal demands the preservation of humanity.

Is all this worthy of preservation? Is the human mind, memory, creativ­ity, language ability, and the multiplicity of other features and capacities that makes us distinctive of lasting value? It is true that we humans do not consistently cover ourselves in glory. Maybe the next link in the chain of evolution that could conceivably follow us will be more knowledgeable, more efficient, and less destructive than we are. Few miss Neanderthals or long to have them back. So, is there any reason to insist on keeping us around?

Judaism’s answer to this question is yes. No matter how animated, intelligent, responsive, or reliable our AI creations might become, AI will never attain the combination of qualities that will merit the status of being “created in the image of God.” While it is doubtful whether it will ever make sense to speak of the death of an AI being, it is unlikely that Judaism will ever see such a loss as a diminution of the Divine.

It is not enough to be able to pass the Turing test of being functionally indistinguishable from a per­son. Nor is it enough to possess superintelligence or unmatched problem-solving abilities. The gulf between achieving convincing human-like qualities and being human is almost certainly unbridgeable. Jews are man­dated to expand the Divine image in the world, not to lessen it. That goal demands the preservation of humanity. Judaism provides no license to contemplate an alternative.

Even assuming that it were possible to create AI that not only exceeds human intelligence but also possesses all salient human qualities, it would not lead to the conclusion that human beings are expendable. It would still make sense to preserve humans as unique intelligent beings with a singular view of the universe.

The irreplaceable human perspective and the poetry inherent within the grandeur and the struggle of human existence are exquisite.

That is why Jewish tradition maintains that “anyone who destroys a life is considered by scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life it is as if they saved an entire world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). Each human life contains the potential for untold signifi­cance, and that will remain true even if AI comes to be viewed as function­ally superior.

If we allow humans to be regarded as “useless,” it will return us to that brutal historical perspective that valued human life only insofar as it was economically productive, possessed the strongest muscles, or displayed the highest intelligence. Judaism rejected that viewpoint back then; it rejects it still today.

It follows that if the preservation of humanity is worthwhile, then attempts to alter humans beyond recognition are inconsistent with this goal. So far, the changes wrought by the various devices that we add to our bodies do no more than restore human abilities to their regular range. Artificial skin, blood, and organs that provide similar outcomes to their biological equivalents fall into the same category. However, once we cross the line into the realm of upgrades, linking our brains to external comput­ers, or installing artificial components with physical capabilities that no human has ever experienced, we will be in uncharted territory.

As American computer scientist David Gelernter points out, if we enter this brave new world of enhancement, it is not clear that we will still be able to define the resultant substantially augmented beings as “human".

Humans, it is important to emphasise, were created to be vulnerable. Adam was lonely and needed the support of a mate. And after we were forced to move away from Eden’s tree of life, mortality and frailty became an enduring part of the human equation. Without exception, every human is forced to confront death and lives with the prospect of sickness, weaken­ing, demise, and loss.

On some level, we are all aware that everything we have is but lent to us and that our existence is eternally delicate; reversal of fortune could come at any moment. We live with a perpetual sense that the vitality that flows through us will one day ebb. This reality is perhaps the starkest difference between human beings and the Divine; feebleness and transience are decidedly not Godly. Indeed, God’s rejection of the Tower of Babel could be understood as a clear demarcation between the eternal, unflagging Divine realm and the human domain — the domain of the vulnerable, where no name is permanent, and no structure lasts for­ever.

Our vulnerability, moreover, is not limited to our physical selves. Our conduct is also fallible, prone as we are to numerous mistakes, countless wrong decisions, and many unfortunate transgressions. Our memory is unreliable, our communications are inaccurate, and our emotions and desires cloud our judgment and decision-making. This is human life; though we dream of longevity, well-being, and nobility, our dreams evap­orate with the dawn.

We are less than Divine, and vulnerability is our hallmark. We spend our lives struggling against physical, mental, and emotional imperfections, knowing full well that, in the end, we will not prevail. Our entire world­view and self-understanding have always been shaped by this reality.

Until now. For the first time in history, we stand on the threshold of being afforded a plausible way to “turn the dial” so that we will no longer need to accept fallibility. Our eyesight will not dim because our eyes will be replaced with superior versions. We will not “lose a step” because new legs will allow us to outperform the best of today’s athletes. Our skin will not sag because a replacement membrane will be reliably supple. Our knowl­edge will not lack, because all that is knowable will be instantly accessible through a chip in our brains. Our memory will not be hazy because every­thing we ever saw or heard will be recallable. And on and on.

Technological advancements will, if we choose, start to address one vulnerability after another. More than any of the changes that have transpired in the first decades of the digital age, this series of transformations will truly alter the essence of who we are. If individuals are afforded a life without key vulner­abilities — so that we need to deal far less, or not at all, with apprehension about aging, or illness, or forgetting, or being uninformed, or even dying — it will remake the core of who we are.

This article is an edited extract from Judaism in a Digital Age: An Ancient Tradition Confronts a Transformative Era by Danny Schiff, just published by Palgrave Macmillan. 

About the author

Danny Schiff

Rabbi Dr Danny Schiff grew up in Melbourne, and now serves as the Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. He is the author of “Abortion in Judaism” and splits his teaching year between Jerusalem and Pittsburgh.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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