Dear Rabbi Fried,
Time magazine recently ran an article on Singularity Theory, which was new to me and very fascinating and scary at the same time, asserting that human intelligence is about to be surpassed by machines. Are you familiar with this theory, and what does Judaism have to say about it?
I am a bit familiar with, but far from well-versed in, this theory. Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil take the lead among other scientists and mathematicians who have studied technological progress, especially that of computer intelligence, and have extrapolated that progress into the future with very compelling predictions. They forecast, assuming the current rate of technological progress, that in some 30 years, computers will become “superintelligent,” far bypassing human intelligence. Since it is impossible to predict how the world, and mankind, will continue to progress, that time spells the end of human intelligence and control as we now know it. At that time, we will potentially be replacing our intelligence, and perhaps control of the world itself, with that of computers. Hence, it is called “Singularity,” borrowed from the astrophysical term describing a black hole. Much like scientific and mathematical predictability breaks down in a black hole, expectedness becomes illusory after the time of superintelligence.
Much of this theory is predicated on studies which show that technological advancement is not linear but exponential, especially with regard to computer intelligence. This is particularly intriguing to me, as this very fact was prophesied by the renowned pre-war sage R’ Yisrael Meir Hakohen, better known as the Chofetz Chaim. He based his prediction upon Torah sources and said that the industrial revolution, which was then really “picking up steam,” would move ahead exponentially as we approach pre-messianic times. He also said that the world would have a spiritual downturn which would also advance exponentially, and that the two are related. My mentor in Jerusalem, of blessed memory, explained the relationship decades ago: The more machines take over for man, the greater the potential for man’s self-esteem, personal growth and even spiritual greatness to decline. This was not to say we should shun progress, only that we should recognize its potential pitfalls and take them into account.
One thing which is clear from Singularity Theory is its proponents’ glaring omission of the human soul from the equation. From a Jewish perspective, it is not possible for a computer, no matter how intelligent, to truly replicate human thought, despite Kurzweil’s adamant insistence. His assertion that a computer could potentially duplicate all of human emotions and responses is based on his purely physiological and mundane outlook on the human experience. Judaism, however, proclaims that much of what we think and feel is not chemical-based, but soul-based. Although with regard to raw intelligence it is possible, the lack of a soul negates the thought that a computer, even with a full-functioning human brain, could truly operate as a human.
Another prediction made by some Singularists is that superintelligence could do away with death and dying. From a Jewish perspective, this is not only impossible but counterproductive. Man was initially created to live forever, if not for the sin of eating the forbidden fruit. At that time, G-d decreed that mankind must die for the souls to disconnect from that sin, which is now part of the makeup of mankind. There will come a time, according to Judaism, when we will indeed rejoin our souls and live eternally. But in the world we live in presently, only via death can the soul purify itself from any negativity which would taint its eternal nature. Not only could computers not overthrow G-d’s decree, we wouldn’t want them to!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,