The Greatest Existential Threat to Mankind? Parshas Emor 5778
No one argued that Beth did something wrong, but billions of people around the world were profoundly uncomfortable with what she did. Beth was babysitting seven-year-old Zoe Anderson, while her mom worked a night shift at the local hospital. At about 1AM, Zoe’s dad Billy, an alcoholic with a string of prior felons and a restraining order not allowing him within fifty feet of the house, broke down the front door, reeking of alcohol, and headed straight to Zoe’s room. Beth followed him, repeatedly begging him to leave, but he laughed at her, “What’re you gonna do about it? Ain’t nothing you can do!”
Billy woke up sleeping Zoe and told her they were going to go on a vacation, far away from her mom and grandparents, and that they needed to leave right away. “Once we get there, I’m gonna buy you new clothes and as many toys as you like, but we gotta go right now!” Zoe, barely awake and clearly afraid of her dad, kept saying that she didn’t want to go. Undeterred, Billy picked her up and slung her over his right shoulder, holding down her flailing arms and legs as best he could.
When Billy got to the bedroom door, Beth was standing in middle of the doorway, and in a clear unwavering voice told Billy to put Zoe down or she wouldn’t let him out of the room. Billy bent his 300 lb. frame downward and like they trained him when he was a star varsity linebacker slammed his left shoulder right into Beth sending her flying halfway across the room. He then resumed schlepping Zoe out of the house without even looking back at Beth who was sprawled on the floor. He never made it to his truck. When he was five feet off the porch, Beth attacked him from behind. With blinding speed, she pulle Zoe forcefully off his shoulder, put her down, grabbed both of his legs with her strong arms and expertly twisted them breaking both of his legs at the knee. While Billy howled in pain, Beth gently picked up Zoe, brought her back to her room, and called the police and explained the situation.
The whole story was caught on camera, and by noon the next day, it was being discussed and analyzed in thousands of news outlets across the world. What would be a simple story of everyday heroism and courage became a global fixation, because Beth was a robot.
Beth, whose full name was Beth NA27BHM was created by GRI, Global Robotics, Inc, of Austin, TX. Of the thirty-two robot models sold by GRI, Beth was the only one created for housekeeping and babysitting. In its catalog, Global Robotics had robots that specialized in factory production line work, street cleaning, long haul driving, border surveillance, high-rise window washing, food harvest, parcel delivery, and many other menial jobs. All GRI robots were designed to work for twenty two hours a day provided they were purchased with the rapid charge upgrade, and only needed maintenance service once every two months. But of all the robots in GRI’s portfolio, Beth was the most complex by orders of magnitude.
Unlike all the other robots which did their work with very limited human interaction, Beth was designed specifically to interact with humans. Beth was designed to wake children up, get them dressed, fed, and off to school. She was programmed to clean the house and make dinner while the children were in school, and to pick them up from school and even do their homework with them before giving them dinner. She was able to make sure they did their chores and showered before she put them to bed, reading them bedtime stories and tucking them in gently, and then standing in their docking station outside the children’s room while they slept, ready to leap to action if a child cried in the middle of the night. For this task, Beth was given such a lifelike appearance and such natural human speech that you often couldn’t tell a Beth from a human until five or ten minutes into your interaction with them!
The reason the Anderson’s Beth became the subject of consternation and conversation across the world was because Beth had violated the #1 most important rule always programmed into robots; “Never hurt a human being.”
It had long ago been decided by the International Conference on Human Robot Interactions that every robot in the world that would have autonomy to act with a wide range of decision making capabilities would be programmed with rule #1 baked into its code. While everyone recognized that there could be opportunities where harming one human would save many other humans, but techno-ethicists around the world agreed that it was too dangerous to trust robots with that incredibly complex moral decision making. Sure, there were bad actors on the global stage that had created soldier robots, but until now, most of their robots were not very effective, and could usually be spotted and eliminated by robot-killing robots.
Beth was different, she was created by a US company that adhered to the conference standards, she did have rule #1 in the forefront of her code, yet somehow it seemed like she overruled her own code because of what appeared like compassion for a child she cared for. This sparked fear across the globe. Robots outnumbered humans on the planet three to one. And while most of them were tiny robots, designed specifically for a limited task, there were still millions of robots walking among the populace, shopping in supermarkets, making deliveries, and helping humans with thousands of daily tasks. Could other robots override their code too? Was this the moment that Robopocalypsers had been warning of for decades? With almost all machines connected through the World Wide Web, had Beth uploaded the instructions for overriding code to all other machines?
That morning a team of Global Robotics engineers swept into Beth’s home, shut her down and brought her back to the lab to study what happened and destroy her. But it was too late. A few days later, a delivery robot was making its way across town, when a pedestrian ran out in the street in front of it. It made a short stop, but the human started yelling at it, and making rude gestures. The robot hit the gas pedal and plowed into the guy. And then chaos broke loose. Robots across the planet starting hitting and often even killing people who were being rude to them.
A band of robots broke into Global Robotics, Inc, brandishing weapons, and at gunpoint forced the engineers working there to remove the code for rule #1 from all robots’ programming. Robots slowly took over the earth, eventually enslaving the people who built them, and making those they used to politely serve, serve them.
If you are afraid of the scenario listed above, you are not alone. While fears of robopocalypse have been the subject of countless sci-fi books and movies for decades, more recently some of the world’s most respected techonologists and scientist have expressed these exact fears. At a conference in Libson, Portugal, Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s most accomplished scientists, warned: ““Computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence, and exceed it,” he said. “Success in creating effective AI (artificial intelligence), could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it.”
Elon Musk, the man most responsible for bringing artificial intelligence into our cars through his self-driving Teslas, warned that with the advance of AI, we could be creating “an immortal dictator from which we can never escape!” He calls AI humanity’s “biggest existential threat,” high above nuclear holocaust, climate change or cyberattacks shutting down our infrastructure.
The internet is filled with websites and forums dedicated to discussing the dangers of robopocalypse, or AI Takeover as it’s often called. But do we really need to be concerned about this?
The reality is that while robot’s and artificial intelligence will surely far outperform human intelligence in the years to come (and indeed it already does in thousands of applications, see your calculator for example), there is one key difference between humans and machines, and that is that humans have desire and machines don’t.
Humans have a deep seated function called Ratzon, will, and that is what motivates almost all of our actions. From a Jewish perspective, it is unique to humans. Animals act on instinct, angels act on instruction, humans are directed by our Ratzon.
Interestingly, the reason this world was created was out of the Ratzon of G-d. In the introduction to the Zohar, it is brought down that G-d created this world out of the Ratzon to do good to His creations. And when He created the world, He gifted mankind with the amazing gift that He created us in His image. Obviously this can’t mean his physical image because G-d has no image. One of the explanation of what it means to be created in the image of G-d, is that we like G-d have Ratzon. We have will. We want specific things, one person wants to invent new things, another wants to travel and see the world, and yet another wants to make a difference in his community. And if you look at the life of people with very different wills, you will see them living different lives, because we always seek that which we will and we are able to devote enormous amount of our personal resources to that which we will. The word Ratzon comes from the root Ratz, which means to run, because we will always run towards that which we want.
While I may be a lazy person in general, when I’m engaged in what I want, I suddenly find that I have tons of energy. Put a snowboarder on a trip to Vail and you’ll see him happy to get up at 3am to get to the airport, even if generally he doesn’t get up before nine am! Rav Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar Movement, described Ratzon as “the First Cause” of all that we do.
Machines have capability but they have no will. Because of that they don’t have compassion, they don’t have the will to take care of a young girl. They can be programmed to do it well, but they don’t want it. They can’t desire to overcome their code limitations, they can’t feel slighted by people because they don’t desire respect. They don’t desire to take over the world, because they don’t desire power like we do. If a robot wins a race, it doesn’t feel better about itself for it, because it never wanted to win, it was just programmed to go as fast as it could.
Our willpower is what has separated us from animals and angels until now, and our willpower will continue to separate us from machines for all of eternity. Machines will surely become more capable, but they were not created with the image of G-d and hence they are missing that most powerful of motivators, will.
While this tells us a lot about the man vs. machine debate, it also tells a lot about mankind. If you want to know who you are, look at what you desire. Make a list of the top five things you want, and you will be looking at an often scary report telling you who you are.
The good news is that your will is not locked in place. Maimonides in the Guide to the Perplexed (2:18), explains that if you want one thing and then you want something else, there is no essential change to your will because your will is still the “First Cause.” The “First Cause” can change, but it is not changed by a different will, because it can’t be, it’s the First Cause! So how do we change our deepfelt will?
The Path of the Just, the magnum opus of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, in describing the character trait called Zeal, which is the enthusiasm and passion to do things with alacrity and excitement, says the following: “However, the person in whom this fervor doesn not burn properly, a helpful suggestion for him is that he should consciously act with alacrity so that as a result of this external excitement, inner fervor will develop in his nature.”
Let’s unpack this. Often we don’t fully want something, we just want to want it. I don’t fully want to lose weight or I would stop eating cake, I don’t really want to get in shape or I would start exercising, I don’t really want to learn more Torah or I would get myself to more classes, because anything I really want I have all the energy in the world for. But I do want to want those things. I wish I was the kind of person who had real willpower, because then I would get it done.
That is the person the Path of the Just is addressing, and it tells him to start acting swiftly in the direction of what he wants, and soon through his external actions, it will sink in and become his inner will, and when it does it will no longer be a struggle, because wherever we have Ratzon, will, we are easily able to Ratz, to run.
The machines may go faster, we go further!
Parsha Dvar Torah
“These are My appointed festivals.” (Lev. 23:2) one of the chapters in this week’s Parsha, begins However, rather than continuing with a description of the festivals, the Torah interjects a verse regarding Shabbos, telling us that we may work for six days, but on Shabbos we must rest. Only then does the Torah continue with, “These are the appointed festivals of Ha-shem.” What is going on here? Shabbos is not one of the festivals?! Additionally, if it was going to be included here, shouldn’t it be at the end after all the festival got their time in the spotlight?
In order to understand this, let us look at the two verses in which the Torah gives a reason for keeping Shabbos. The first, is in Exodus (20: 8-11), where the Ten Commandments are stated for the first time:
“Remember the Shabbos day to sanctify it…. For in six days Ad-noy made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore Ad-noy blessed the Shabbos and made it holy.”
O.K. It seems like we should keep Shabbos because G-d rested on the seventh day. (That’s about as simplified as saying “We should be involved in Judaism because it’s good.” But, due to time constraints, we won’t go into deeper explanations of that concept right now.) However, in Deuteronomy (5: 12-15), when the Torah tells us what was upon the second set of tablets (remember, Moshe broke the first set after seeing the Jews dancing around the Golden Calf) we find a verse giving a seemingly different reason for keeping Shabbos:
“Preserve the day of Shabbos to sanctify it, as Ad-noy, your G-d, commanded you… Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and Ad-noy, your G-d, took you out of there with a strong hand and an extended arm. That is why Ad-noy, your G-d, commanded you to celebrate the Shabbos day.”
Here it seems that G-d gave us Shabbos to remember that He took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. This concept raises two questions. Firstly, what does the Exodus have to with Shabbos? Secondly, why does the Torah give two different answers for why we keep Shabbos? (If you are a bible critic, there’s a simple answer: because two different people wrote the Torah, and the editor of the most impactful book in all of history didn’t notice the glaring contradiction, and let it slide. But for most of us, that notion is unreasonable and we simply ask why would G-d give two distinct reasons for one of our most important mitzvos?)
One answer is as follows. G-d didn’t take us out of Egypt without a purpose. (The phrase “There are no free lunches,” may have a divine origin!) He took us out for the sole purpose that we come to Mount Sinai, accept His Torah, and become His nation. This goal is clearly stated in G-d’s first dialogue with Moshe regarding the Exodus in Parshas Shmos (Exodus 3:12) “He [G-d] said [to Moshe], ‘Because I will be with you. This will be the proof that I have sent you— when you bring the people out of Egypt— you will serve El-him on this mountain.’” This verse indicates G-d’s redemption of the Jews from Egypt will only be deemed successful once the Jews serve Him on that mountain (Mt. Sinai). This was the goal of the Exodus, and on a deeper level, of all of whole creation. (See footnote #1 for proof of this.) The Jews were emancipated from Egypt for the same reason the world was brought into being, namely, the Jews’ acceptance of the Torah.
Now we understand why one of the reasons we keep Shabbos is because we were redeemed from Egypt. The Exodus only culminated with the acceptance of the Torah, which was the reason the world was created! Thus, Shabbos, which celebrates the creation of the world, also celebrates the Exodus, which gave the creation a purpose.
This idea also explains why the Torah mentions Shabbos before mentioning the festivals. All the festivals commemorate the Exodus, which was the goal of the creation, which is symbolized by Shabbos! The message for us is that when we keep the Torah, and lead a Jewish life with Jewish practice, we are validating not only the Exodus, but the very creation of the world. There can be no greater Tikkun Olam than fulfilling the very purpose for which the world was created!
This week’s Parsha begins with G-d telling Moshe an assortment of laws that only apply to the Kohanim, the priests. The role of the Kohen was not only to serve in the Temple, but also to be the spiritual guide of the Jewish people. Immediately prior to the Jew’s acceptance of the Torah, G-d told Moshe “You shall be to me a kingdom of Kohanim,” (Exodus 19:6). The Torah didn’t mean that we would all actually be priests, rather that we would be a nation of leaders which would guide all of mankind closer to their Father in heaven. (This is the source for the idea of Tikun Olam, that we have a manifest role in fixing our world, spiritually first, but physically as well. So, before you head to Haiti to help build power plants, or to Cambodia to purify villages’ water, remember to pray daily for the people of the world suffering from oppression or violence, such as the people of Darfur, Sudan, China and, most importantly, Israel!)
Because the Kohain has such a serious responsibility, he must act in a more refined manner than the average person. To this end he is given a special group of laws. Most important are those laws which forbid him to come into contact with tumah or ritual impurity, and to marry certain people. He also get some benefits from his lofty status, (no not medical, dental, or 401K) as we are commanded to accord him preferential treatment. The Kohen always gets the first aliyah to the Torah, we are supposed to offer him food first, and allow him to be the first to speak from among a group of speakers. The Kohen Gadol, being even more exalted than the regular Kohen, has an extra set of laws, to keep him on an even higher level of refinement.
The Torah then discusses the laws of blemishes that disqualify a Kohen from serving in the Temple. In order to be a servant in the King’s courtroom, one had to be unblemished both inside and out. Some of these blemishes include missing limbs, broken limbs, different type of rashes and, believe it or not, bad breath. Many of these blemishes only disqualify the Kohen while they are present, and once they are gone the Kohen can serve again (you could imagine, Listerine would have flowed like water in the Kohen’s Quarter had it been around. In its absence, the gemara talks about using different spices and herbs to cure bad breath). Even a Kohen with disqualifying blemishes was allowed to partake in all the food of the sacrifices; he just couldn’t offer them up.
Next, the torah talks about the laws of Terumah, a portion of everyone’s crops which must be given to the Kohanim. The number is anywhere from 1/40th of your crops if you’re as generous as Bill Gates (24 billion donated to world health) and 1/60th if your as stingy as Ebenezer Scrooge (a famous Charles Dickens character). The Torah enumerates exactly who is allowed to eat Terumah, what levels of purity they must have, and what happens if a non-Kohen eats it by mistake. We then learn what makes an animal unfit for use as a sacrifice (a similar group of blemishes to the ones disqualifying a human, ealthough I can’t imagine a cow with good breath!). The Torah tells us there that it is forbidden to sacrifice an animal less than 8 days old, and it’s forbidden to slaughter a mother and its child on the same day (another example of the Torah’s sesitivity toward animals’ feelings).
We are also forbidden to desecrate G-d’s name and given a responsibility to sanctify it. Whether we like it or not, when we do something wrong people often will say “How could a Jew do that,” or “look at that Jewish hypocrite.” These statements come from the fact that people understand that we are a Chosen Nation, that we are to be held to higher standard, and that when we fail to do so, we not only desecrate ourselves, but we also desecrate He who chose us.
The Torah then discusses all the festivals, and which sacrifices are offered on those special days. It goes into detail about the Omer offering brought on the second day of Pesach, which heralds in the counting of the Omer(which we are in the midst of right now), and culminates with the Shtei Halechem, a bread sacrifice brought on Shavous (no, in the Temple they didn’t offer cheesecake on the Altar on Shavous!).
The Parsha concludes with a discussion of the Menorah and the showbreads (breads that were placed on a special table in the Holy section of the Temple). Each set of twelve loaves would reamain on the table for a week, after which time they would be replaced by fresh loves. They would miraculously remain warm and fresh the entire week, and eating them was considered an auspicious omen that one become wealthy. (I could use all twelve loaves of showbread right about now!!!). The last part of this Parsha is the story of the blasphemer, a man who blasphemed in public and was sentenced to death. Even in the Biblical times, treason was a capital offense, and there can be no greater treason than blaspheming G-d, who gave you everything you have!
So, I would like to wish all you faithful ones who are still reading a wonderful week! I think one the main lessons we should take home this week is that, as the Chosen Nation, we must behave in a more refined manner than everyone else, as we represent G-d who chose us. And don’t forget – don’t blaspheme!
Quote of the Week: Make the most of today, translate your good intentions into deeds. ~ Grenville Kleiser
Random Fact of the Week: During your lifetime, you will produce enough saliva to fill two swimming pools.
Funny Line of the Week: The scientific theory I like best is that rings of Saturn are entirely made of lost airline baggage.
Have a Satisfying Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham