The Spiritual Limitations of Artificial Intelligence
Commenting on an early computer in the 1840s, mathematician Ada Lovelance wrote, “It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform [but] has no pretensions whatever to originate anything.” Here, Lovelace describes the “Analytical Engine” machine, one of the first computers which she believed could only follow pre-programmed commands. For Lovelace, the notion of a machine with its own intelligence, one capable of creating original work, seemed unfathomable.
The advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), technology that can simulate human thought processes and create original work, makes Lovelace’s predictions obsolete in a sense. AI’s success causes many to question whether traits such as knowledge, creativity, and even sentience will lose their human novelty at the hands of new AI’s such as OpenAI’s DALL-E-2 and ChatGPT or Google’s LaMDA.
Though AI can, to a certain extent, mimic the above human characteristics, Jewish thought suggests that there is one area where it falls short: mirroring the human relationship with a higher being.
The Torah itself hints at the uniqueness of humankind when it comes to spiritual matters. The 27th verse of the Bereshit says that man was created b’tzelem elokim, or in the image of God. This seems to suggest that there is something inherently special about the human connection with God, something that no other being can replicate.
But what specific characteristics does man share with an intangible God? Perhaps, understanding this commonality, this point of connection between man and God, can shed light on what makes humankind unique in the face of AI.
The Exodus from Egypt stands out as an example of the beginning of a powerful relationship between humans and God. It begins with the burning bush, an inciting incident that kicks off the journey to come. At the burning bush, God charges Moshe to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. In the process of accepting this request, Moshe has one of the key conversations between man and God in the Torah, which defines one facet of Judaism’s approach to the human connection with God.
The conversation at the burning bush emphasizes the idea of empathy. Throughout the dialogue, God encourages and supports Moshe despite his humble nature and lack of self-confidence. When Moshe questions what qualifies him for the task ahead, God provides comfort. Using the word “ahyeh,” meaning “I will be,” God says that He will be with and support Moshe throughout the Exodus. Still, Moshe doubts his potential and points to his speech impediment as a weakness. Again, God demonstrates His empathy, saying that He Himself gives humankind their abilities and disabilities. Therefore, He fully understands Moshe’s potential and again tells him that He will be, or “ahyeh,” with Moshe’s mouth despite its impairment.
God not only demonstrates empathy for Moshe at the burning bush but also for the Israelites as a whole. From early on in the dialogue, God stresses that He has seen the troubles of Israelites and feels compelled to save them because He internalizes their sorrow so deeply. This statement embodies empathy; God fully understands and senses their plight.
Later on, this theme continues when God declares that one of His names is “ahyeh asher ahyeh,” or “I will be that which I will be.” The Sages in the Gemara in Brachot say that this Godly name also relates to empathy. Here, God says that He will not only be with the Israelites during the Exodus but also throughout their future times of trouble. Another one of God’s names, Yud-K-Vav-K, further embodies the idea of God’s timeless, empathetic nature. It is a combination of the words for past, present and future in Hebrew and assures that God is always with the Jewish people through all time.
These points of discussion at the burning bush share the common theme of empathy. When Moshe doubts his own strength, God says that He will be with Moshe as an individual. Later, God reveals His name, which also embodies empathy; God will always be with His people in the past, present and future. And most importantly, God tells Moshe that He internalizes the suffering of the Israelites and that this empathy will spur Him to save them.
In Jewish tradition, many mitzvot remind us of the Exodus from Egypt. The Ten Commandments, Shema, Shabbat kiddush, and the obligation to remember Amalek all include references to recalling the Exodus. Perhaps, one function of these reminders is to recall God’s empathy during the Exodus. These mitzvot may serve to prompt us to actively receive and reciprocate God’s empathy. They give us an opportunity to be appreciative of God and learn to empathize as well.
Our ability to reciprocate God’s empathy is uniquely human. Chat GPT itself admitted to this shortcoming of AI. When asked about this subject, it stated that, “As an AI language model, I don’t have feelings or emotions, so I can’t give back to someone in the same way that humans do.” This ability to give back, to reciprocate and recognize empathy, is not only a defining aspect of our relationship with God but also what makes us human, the only beings created “in the image of God.” With no sense of self, an AI cannot experience emotional attachment and does not need to overcome self-centeredness to give back or empathize. AI may be able to access knowledge bases and think creatively, but because they lack the ability to care, their actions come from robotic, not empathetic, instincts at best.
When recalling the Exodus through several mitzvot, we recognize the impetus that prompted God to save the Israelites: His eternal empathy. God internalized the Israelites’ sorrow so deeply and felt impelled to act. These mitzvot give us a pathway to give back and reciprocate such empathy through our connection with God, something that no AI can do.