AI ON THE ALTAR
AI is on everyone’s mind. The statement on AI risk issued this week by leading scientists and thinkers, projects concern to a new level. “Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority,” they say, “alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.”
Responsible discussion about these issues has been taking place for some time. The Oxford Institute for Ethics in AI was founded in February 2021 and similar associations exist in Harvard and elsewhere. In view of this week’s alarming statement, these discussions need to be escalated.
Will AI affect every area of our lives? There is no doubt that much of what we now do, at home and at work, will be replaced by intelligent automation. AI will help discover new drugs and offer options for dealing with climate change. However, like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” controls must be put in place to avoid the nightmare scenarios.
Nevertheless, at least one area of our lives will stand apart from change.
Much of this week’s parasha deals with the offerings brought by the princes of each tribe for the dedication of the Tabernacle. Each prince brought a silver bowl and basin, both filled with flour and oil; a golden ladle of incense; and animals for the altar. The altar was made of stone but there was a specific limitation in its construction.
The Torah says in Parashat Yitro:
“If you make Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stone; for in lifting your tool upon it, you profane it.” (Shemot 20:22)
Rashi in his commentary on that verse quotes a Midrash which says:
“…for the altar was created to lengthen the days of a person. It is not right that that which shortens life should be lifted up against that which lengthens it…”
The Midrash is normally understood to mean that metal tools like the sword cut short a person’s life. They have no place on the altar which offers repentance and atonement that lengthens a person’s life. Rabbi Michel Twerski of Milwaukee, a Hassidic leader and thinker, explained that the metal tool is to be understood in a broader sense. It represents the achievement of technology which has shortened our lives in the sense that tasks that once took a long time, can be performed much more quickly.
The message of the Midrash is that when it comes to the altar, there are no shortcuts. There is no technology of the spirit. Our efforts for spiritual growth cannot be hastened or damaged by any development in AI or other scientific advance. In a world which sometimes feels as though it is spiralling out of control, our spiritual world remains intact and will always have value.