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Artificial Intelligence – the warning that shook the world

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil
September 26, 2017

Have you noticed how the world is moving at an ever faster pace? Can you keep up?

It’s busy out there. Technology was created in order to make our lives simpler, yet we all feel that the opposite has occurred. We are now accessible 24/7 and that has added unprecedented stress to our daily routines.

Our Parasha mainly focusses on the blessings and curses that may occur to Am Yisrael should they deviate from the path of the Torah.

We are warned not to delve from the right path and end up serving other gods “Velo Tasur – do not deviate from all the matter that I (Hashem) have commanded you today right or left, to go after other gods and serve them.” (28:14)

The word Lasur in Hebrew means to deviate, even by a small amount.

When Moshe Rabenu was wondering in the desert and he came across the unusual phenomenon of the  burning bush, the Torah relates that he said, “Asura Na…” – I will change path a little and go and see this great site.

The Midrash relates a debate amongst the Rabbis as to how exactly Moshe deviated from his path.

Rabbi Yochanan said he took five steps towards it, whilst Resh Lakish said he merely turned his face round to the direction of the bush and gazed. (Shemot Rabbah 5:6)

With a turn of the neck, face and a gaze a person has already deviated from their path!

Thus when the Torah warns us not to deviate from its path, it means even by the slightest amount.

Why? What is so bad about a small deviation?

Although the looming threat of nuclear war with North Korea is now on all of our minds, Elon Musk is warning that there’s an even bigger danger.

In an open letter (Aug. 21), The SpaceX and Tesla boss joined a group of 116 AI specialists from 26 nations calling for the United Nations to ban the development and use of autonomous weapons.

The prospect of tanks, machine guns, and drones that think for themselves becoming widespread is making the tech luminaries anxious

The letter says of autonomous weapons:

“Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora ’s Box is opened, it will be hard to close.”

In their petition, the group states that the development of such technology would usher in a “third revolution in warfare,” that could equal the invention of gunpowder and nuclear weapons.

Even the greatest technological leaders of our generation are proactively realising the potential threat should their very own creations could cause.

This is the meaning of our verse – it starts with a small deviation, he didn’t really sin so much. However as time progresses the person ends up performing the worst sin – serving idols.

Similarly the Baal Shem Tov explained the Pasuk we say daily “Hishamru Lachem Pen Yifte Levavchem VeSartem….. – Vaavadetem Elokim Acherim – be careful not to let your heart turn as this will eventually lead to serving other gods. At the time it is unthinkable that one would every stoop so low, but when we deviate a small amount away from the correct path, there is no limit as to how far down we can sink.

In Pirkei Avot (4:2) we read:

“Ben Azzai said: Run to do even the slightest Mitzva and flee from all sin, for one Mitzva will lead to another Mitzva and one sin to another sin; for the reward of a Mitzva is a Mitzva and the recompense of a sin is sin.”

Every action has an inner rhythm that pushes and leads to another, similar, action.

Questioning the first part of the Mishna, Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, notes that it seems to contradict the principle of Free Choice.

If the individual must pursue Mitzvot, the implication is that, by default, Divine commandments are “running away,” or are not attractive. On the other hand, if one must flee sin, the implication is that ordinarily sin “pursues” man such that he must run away to save himself. Indeed, the human experience bears witness to this very point. Chazal additionally note that the Evil Inclination is placed within Man before the Good Inclination (Sanhedrin 91b, &Bereishit 6:5). Would it not be more consistent with the principal of Free Choice for Good and Evil to be equally desirable?

Rabbi Chaim’s explains that the life spirit, the eternal aspect of the human being is the soul, in the words of the Kabbalists, “a piece of the Divine.” Naturally, the soul desires only the “cleaving to G-d” through the contemplation of the Divine accomplished through the study of Torah and the performance of Mitzvot, Divine commandments.

The word “Mitzva” is also derived from “Tzavta,” company, connection, as Mitzvotare all vehicles with which to connect to the Root of the Soul, the Creator of All. The body is merely a tool in which the soul is able to function in This World, having no independent existence at all. In light of this, the battle between Good and Evil would automatically be won in favour of the Good as this represents Man’s existential essence. In order to “even out the odds” and allow Man to choose between Good and Evil and thus earn eternal reward, Hashem caused the psychology of Man to be such that Mitzvot appear at first less attractive and ‘Averot (sins) seem at the outset more desirable. Therefore, we are charged by Ben Azzai, “Run after Mitzvot!;” do not be fooled by the appearance of their initial unattractiveness for that is what G-d ordained concerning the human experience in order to provide challenge and choice. “Flee from sin!;” do not be taken in by its lure and promise of temporary satisfaction. Once one follows this path, the Mishna continues, this leads to a chain reaction. After the person follows the Good, has tasted spiritual pleasure and has overcome the desire to follow first appearances, one Mitzva follows another, and he is ready to move up a rung in the ladder of Divine Service whereby he sees Mitsvot as vehicles of eternal, transcendent pleasure and happiness. The opposite is true with sin. The more one pursues this path, the more “real” and seemingly lasting the fake pleasure of sin becomes, and the person becomes more greatly entwined in its web.

When we deviate we are not just deviating from one small matter, rather we are setting in motion a chain reaction that can have an everlasting and far greater affect.

Just like technology once unleashed is difficult to really control and no one, not even the Elon Musk’s of this world know where we end up.

In the words of the Rambam(Hilchot Teshuva)

“Every individual has good traits and bad; credits and sins … A person should view himself at all times as if he is 50:50 : half guilty and half innocent. And the whole world too should be viewed likewise : half guilty and half innocent, balanced with precision. Just one sinful act and that person, indeed the entire world, will be determined as guilty and sentenced to destruction. Just one Mitzva and that individual along with the whole world will tip the balance towards the side of innocence , salvation and safety.” [3:1,4]

Hmmm! The power of a single act!

Lest we become despondent, lest we feel that we are simply a product of our prior decisions, lest we feel that it is hopeless, that we will never change, the Rambam has something else to say:

“Everyone has the choice, the option. If one wishes to set one’s path to good – to become a Tzadik – the path is open. If one wishes to set ones path to bad – to become evil –  that path is open too.” [5:1]

We choose. We can, at any moment, re-set our path. But don’t forget. Our choices have consequences. Always.


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