David Gelernter has written a characteristically thought-provoking essay about what guidance might be gleaned from Judaism for how human beings ought to treat “sophisticated anthropoid robots” with artificial intelligence powerful enough to allow them to respond to the world in a manner that makes them seem exactly like us. Taking his cue from Biblical and rabbinic strictures concerning cruelty to animals, he argues that because these robots “will seem human,” we should avoid treating them badly lest we become “more oblivious of cruelty to human beings.”
This conclusion, which one might draw as well on Aristotelian as Biblical grounds, is a powerful one — and in a world of demolition derbies and “Will It Blend?,” where even a video of a washing machine being destroyed can go viral, it is hard to deny that Gelernter has identified a potentially serious issue. It was raised with great force in the “Flesh Fair” scenes of the 2001 movie A.I., where we see robots being hunted down, herded together, and subjected to various kinds of creative destruction in front of howling fans. Meanwhile, the robots look on quietly with what I have always found to be heartbreaking incomprehension.
And yet, it also seems to me that the ringleader at the Flesh Fair, vicious though he is, is not entirely wrong when he harangues the crowd about the need to find a way to assert the difference between humans and robots in a world where it is becoming increasingly easy to confuse the two. And it is in this connection that I wonder whether Gelernter’s argument has sufficiently acknowledged the challenge to Jewish thought that is being posed by at least some of the advocates of the advanced artificial intelligence he is describing.
Gelernter knows full well the “sanctity and ineffable value” that Judaism puts on human life, which is to say he knows that in Jewish thinking human beings are unique within creation. In such a framework, it is understandable why the main concern with animal (or robot) cruelty should be the harm it might do to “our own moral standing” or “the moral stature and dignity of human beings.” But the moral dignity of human beings and our uniqueness in creation is precisely what is coming under attack from transhumanists, as well as the less potent but more widespread forms of scientism and technophilia in our culture. Gelernter is certain that the robot will feel no pain; but what of those who would reply that they will “process” an electrical signal from some part of their bodies that will trigger certain kinds of functions — which is after all what pain “really” is? Gelernter is certain that these anthropoid robots will have no inner life, but what of those, such as Tor Nørretranders and Daniel Dennett, who are busy arguing that what we call consciousness is just “user illusion”?
I don’t doubt that Gelernter could answer these questions. But I do doubt that his answers would put an end to all the efforts to convince us that after all we are simply “meat machines.” And if more and more we think of ourselves as “meat machines,” then what Gelernter calls the “pernicious incrementalism” of cruelty to robots that he is reasonably concerned about points in another direction as well: not that we start treating “thous” as “its,” but that in transforming “its” into “thous” we take all the moral meaning out of “human.”
It probably should not surprise us that there are dangers of kindness to robots as well as cruelty, but the fact that it is so might prompt us to wonder about the reasons that seem to make going down this road so compelling. Speaking Jewishly, Gelernter might recall the lesson from the pre-twentieth-century accounts of the golem, the legends of pious men creating an artificial anthropoid that go back to the Talmud. Nearly from the start two things are clear about the golem: only the wisest and most pious could ever hope to make one, but the greatest wisdom would be to know how and not to do so.