September 28, 2023
September 28, 2023

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Artificial Intelligence: Boon or Bust?

Behar-Bechukotai is a double Torah portion that contains some of the most profound and challenging commandments of the Torah, including the laws of the Jubilee year, the laws of the sabbatical year and the blessings and curses that will befall the Israelites depending on whether they obey or disobey God’s commandments.

One possible dvar Torah that can be derived from this Torah portion is the importance of balancing our material and spiritual needs. In the Jubilee year, all land is returned to its original owners, and all slaves are set free. This is a reminder that we are merely temporary caretakers of the land and its resources, and that, ultimately, everything belongs to God.

Similarly, the sabbatical year is a time of rest and renewal for the land, as well as for the people. It is a time to focus on spiritual growth and reflection, and to recognize that our physical needs are not the only ones that matter. The blessings and curses in the second part of the portion remind us that our actions have consequences, and that we must strive to live in accordance with God’s commandments in order to experience the blessings of His divine providence.

In our modern world, it can be easy to get caught up in the pursuit of material success and forget about our spiritual needs. This Torah portion reminds us that our material possessions and accomplishments are temporary, and that, ultimately, it is our spiritual growth and connection to God that will bring us lasting fulfillment and happiness. By taking time to rest and reflect, and by striving to live in accordance with God’s commandments, we can achieve a balance between our material and spiritual needs and experience the blessings of God’s providence in our lives.

As lofty and inspirational as this dvar Torah sounds it was entirely created by ChatGPT, the newest technology that offers artificial intelligence (AI) abilities to the layperson. Is AI good or is it bad? The answer might depend on how it is used. If it is used as a research tool to supplement our knowledge and help us make better informed decisions, then, it might be good. If it is used as a substitute for our own creativity, where we passively let another entity think for us, then, it might not be as good.

Already, there are reports that children are turning to AI applications to have them do their homework for them and to write term papers in college. They no longer have to learn how to do research and write for themselves. They are taking the lazy man’s way out.

Were there any analogous applications in Jewish history? The earliest source of when the Jewish people turned to an outside entity to answer their questions of consequence was the Urim VeTummim (Bamidbar 27:21.) In ancient Israel, when a decision of national significance was needed, the high priest (Kohen Gadol) was consulted. Within the fold of the high priest’s breastplate were the Urim VeTummim (lights and perfections). According to most traditions, the Urim VeTummim was a piece of parchment with God’s four-letter name written on it. Its function was to serve as an oracle, divining whether or not the Jewish people should take a certain course of action, and was to be used only by the king, the Jewish high court or a person needed by the whole community, such as a general.

When its services were needed, the Kohen Gadol would stand facing the holy ark with the questioner behind him. The individual desiring an answer would ask a simple yes-or-no question such as, “Shall we go to war?” The Kohen Gadol would meditate until he reached divine inspiration. Then, certain letters on the breastplate (upon which the names of the 12 tribes were written) would appear to protrude or light up, producing an answer (Yoma 21b.) The difference, though, was that the answers coming from the Urim VeTummim were not produced by artificial intelligence. They were the word of God giving guidance to the Jewish leaders as to how to proceed on matters of national importance.

Then there was the Maharal of Prague (1512-1609) who is, perhaps, most famous for the many legendary stories surrounding his creation of a “golem,” a humanoid clay figure that was brought to life through Kabbalah and the use of divine names. The golem helped protect the Jews who faced constant persecution. However, the golem was not capable of creative thought. It just did what it was told. In Modern Hebrew, “golem” is used to mean “dumb” or “helpless.” It is often used today as a metaphor for a mindless, slow-witted person or an entity that serves a man under controlled conditions. Again, this was not equivalent to today’s artificial intelligence capabilities that can think for itself and be creative.

With artificial intelligence (AI) tools increasing in sophistication and usefulness, people and industries are eager to deploy them to increase efficiency, save money and inform human decision-making. But are these tools ready for the real world? As any comic book fan knows: with great power comes great responsibility. The proliferation of AI raises questions about trust, bias, privacy and safety, and there are few settled, simple answers.

Experts emphasize that artificial intelligence technology itself is neither good nor bad in a moral sense, but its uses can lead to both positive and negative outcomes. Much like the internet itself, AI users can develop and read divrei Torah, such as the one above or they can use it for nefarious purposes. AIlike the internetis a tool. These tools are here to stay. May Hashem give us the wisdom to use these tools for tikkun olamto make the world a better placebringing it closer to the harmonious state for which it was created.

Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist and a member of the American Psychology-Law Society. He is the coordinator of Bikur Cholim/Chesed at Congregation Torah Ohr in Boca Raton, Florida. He can be reached at [email protected].

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