February 22, 2020

Technology and the age of broken tablets

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried once speculated that people in the 1400s wandered around thinking, “Wow — this is a long time ago.” It was a long time ago, but some things don’t change.  

If you actually lived in the beginning of the 15th century and had internet access, the conquests of Tamerlane would be in the headlines every day. You would be convinced that his savagery and legacy were the most important things in the world. After all, politics rules the world, right? 

Yet just a few short years later, in the small German town of Mainz, a man named Gutenberg was born and soon began experimenting with movable type. Those experiments, leading to the printing press, would prove infinitely more influential than all of Tamerlane’s sieges and slaughters.

If you read the headlines today, you would believe that the only consequential events revolve around another world leader whose name also begins with “T.” Yet there are developments that are changing our world far more than politics, and there is a powerful way to understand them from the Torah.

Recently, I attended a series of conferences where leaders in technology, science and venture capital sat around talking about their lives and concerns. I moderated a panel on ethics and technology, and we discussed the most frightening and promising developments in technology. Three pre-eminent concerns were featured.

The first was CRISPR. CRISPR is a technique that enables scientists to edit the human genome. So CRISPR has momentous implications in the prevention and cure of disease. But it is also the basis for possible interventions of a different sort: to determine our characteristics and the characteristics of our children. Aspirations are growing to edit all kinds of features — children who will be taller, smarter, have green eyes or blond hair or less anxiety or more ambition. Some experts believe these are many years off; others see more imminent possibilities. But of course this is a beachhead, and research will not end with CRISPR. 

What if you really could design the child you want? What if less scrupulous nations bred for soldiers (less empathy, greater aggression), or any of a thousand (million?) other combinations that we can only imagine?

Such things seem remote, but experimentation already has begun. One of the technologists spoke about an attempt underway in Singapore to select and manipulate embryos for greater intelligence. We tend to disregard how quickly changes happen because we swim in their wake. Twenty-five years ago, the idea that you would spend all your time staring at a small screen that contained all of human knowledge would have seemed impossible. But you have that device in your pocket as you read this.

There are other techniques that similarly challenge our way of seeing ourselves. Transcranial direct current stimulation is a method of running electric currents into particular parts of the brain. It not only has effects on mood but in some experiments has changed moral decision-making, levels of altruism and other things we think of as part of our basic personality. If I can make you repentant by a jolt of current into your prefrontal cortex, Yom Kippur becomes a very different enterprise.

The second looming shock wave is a contraction of jobs as a result of a variety of technological advances. Self-driving cars — five years away? Ten? Estimates vary, but within a decade, according to most experts, we’ll see the end of the careers of every Uber, taxi and truck driver. It also will save lives, space and air quality. But what will the millions whose jobs are eliminated do to earn a living? Many of them are no longer young and retraining will not be easy. What are we doing to prepare for it?

Self-driving cars are only one impending change. At my session, a man from the Philippines said his company had tested an automated complaint response system that was able to “learn” from feedback to responses. In short order, the automated system was preferred by customers to the best human responders. What will happen to call centers, bank tellers, travel agents and all those people who interrupt your dinner with offers of condos in Palm Beach? Combine fewer jobs with longer lives and we are facing a social dislocation greater than we have known in millennia.

The third area cited most often by technologists and futurists is artificial intelligence (AI). I once met Marion Tinsley, the greatest checkers player ever. He died a decade before computers thoroughly mastered the game and became unbeatable. When I was a high school tournament chess player, no chess-playing machine could beat a competent amateur. Now a simple desktop program can defeat the world champion. Last year, the most complex strategy board game, Go, was conquered by computers, ahead of expectations. Computers can diagnose diseases without ever having a bad day, a fight at home, too little sleep or a simple oversight. 

All of this without even reckoning that we might create machines that outwit us. One thought experiment proposed by philosopher Nick Bostrom illustrating such dangers concerns a “paper clip machine.” 

Say one day we create a superintelligence, and we ask it to make as many paper clips as possible. Maybe we built it to run our paper-clip factory. If we were to think through what it actually would mean to configure the universe in a way that maximizes the number of paper clips that exist, you realize that such an AI would have incentives, instrumental reasons, to harm humans.

Human bodies consist of a lot of atoms and they can be used to build more paper clips. If you plug into a superintelligent machine with almost any goal you can imagine, most goals would be inconsistent with the survival and flourishing of the human civilization.

Bostrom, like engineer, inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk, thinks artificial intelligence is a very dangerous thing. Musk has said it is humanity’s “biggest existential threat.” 

These and many other changes are challenges that loom larger than any we have ever faced. It is true, as my brother Paul, a bioethicist who chairs the Center for Ethics at Emory University, has written, “We have changed nature since we crawled out of the trees.” But today’s techniques are incrementally more powerful. We are not only changing technology, we are in sight of fundamentally altering human capacity. That is new, astonishing, promising and terrifying.

When Moses came down the mountain with the tablets, he had in his hand the Divine word. After he saw the golden calf, he smashed the tablets. Heading back up the mountain, on God’s instructions, he carved the second set with his own hand. Now we would live with a humanly crafted set of rules, based on God, but fashioned by human beings.

We live in the age of the broken tablets. To know the essentials of life — climate, human biology, the creation and extinction of species — remained part of the God-fashioned order. No longer. Now our hand is writing the letters.

The wisdom of tradition has never been more urgent. While each day the cable news channels and newspaper headlines scream about politics, the world is shifting from under our feet. Today’s election will pale compared with tomorrow’s advance in the laboratory. Gutenberg meant more than Tamerlane. What we printed with Gutenberg’s invention changed the world. In 1455, the great book that Gutenberg chose to print was the Bible.

We need to think about the values we treasure, the world we create and the tablets we are writing. The Torah must be both adopted and adapted in this new world. We stand again at Sinai, and the revelation, dark or bright, is in our hands.

David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple. His most recent book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).