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A Review of Making Man in Our Image, A Jewish Perspective

In his latest article titled Let Us Make Man in Our Image-A Jewish Ethical Perspective on Creating Conscious Robots, published in AI and Ethics (2023), computer engineer and professor Mois Navon offers a Jewish ethical perspective on creating human-like conscious robots1.

While technological advances may soon allow humanity to achieve the millennia-old dream of building machines with human-level consciousness, Navon reflects on the morality of such an endeavour. He analyzes the religious narrations around the concept of the golem – an animated anthropomorphic being created from inanimate matter in the Jewish tradition.

The question of morality regarding the creation of sentient machines has previously been considered by invoking various arguments, mainly from the perspective of consequentialism. The consequential approach considers the outcomes, whether positive or negative, of the creation of sentient machines.

On one hand, sentient humanoid robots could provide comfort to those struggling with infertility, loneliness, and interpersonal relationships. Such agents could even act in advisory roles. On the other hand, these agents would come with their own set of challenges including discrimination, speciesism, psychologically burdening “designer” beings, concerns regarding competition with human resources, the propriety of creating immortal beings, and the potential risks of losing agentic control.

These benefits and challenges can be examined from a virtue ethics perspective. For example, would it be virtuous to create such agents to help humans? Conversely, would it be vicious to create agents destined to be discriminated against? However, both consequentialism and virtue ethics can be highly speculative.

In his article, Navon goes beyond these consequentialist arguments through the use of deontology, and expands on what insights Jewish philosophy can offer on this important issue.

Since the 9th century, Midrashim (religious narrations) associated with the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) relate various stories where men create golems, synthetic humanoid creatures with different levels of animation. The lowest level includes zombie-like mindless beings, incapable of making choices of its own. The next level includes sentient beings with a first order phenomenal consciousness, exhibiting animal-like behaviours. The highest level includes sentient beings which are fully self-aware and exhibit second order phenomenal consciousness. Navon argues that this highest level is equivalent to the concept of the soul in Jewish tradition.

Navon asserts that the creation of a golem closely resembles the creation of the first human by God. Both are made with the same processes (letter combinations), the same material (dust) and in the same form (the creator’s image). Navon bases his analysis on two seminal stories of golem creation: the account with the prophet Jeremiah2, and the account with a man called Rava3.

In the first, Jeremiah and his son create a conscious being who, after coming to life, ends its existence by erasing the written formula on its forehead that gave it life. Before departing, the being imparts a parable to explain why they should not engage in similar acts of creation. The parable considers an architect who is crowned king for his wisdom, but when others learned how to be architects themselves, the crowds left the king to follow the discipline of architecture. This parable implies that if humans engaged in the works of God, the faithful would abandon their faith in Him.

The second story starts with a premise: “If the righteous wished, they could create a world, for it is written, ‘But your iniquities have separated between you and your God.’ (Isaiah 59:2, KJV)”. The story features Rava creating a human being (Gavra) and sending his creation to visit a friend to verify its humanity. The friend tries to engage Rava’s Gavra in conversation, asking questions that mirror a Turing test. When the being gives no response, he commands it to return to dust.

Navon argues that the story of Jeremiah can be interpreted from two different, but not divergent, perspectives. From a theological perspective, one could consider the story a warning against a collapse of faith. From a deontological perspective, the story may be warning humanity against self-idolatry, eventually leading to self-extinction. Navon argues that the tale is not a call to cease technological advances, but offers a warning against placing faith in technology to the point of replacing God.

The second story’s most important element resides in the premise that if one was free of sin and was therefore equal to God, they could create a world for themselves. Since it is impossible for humanity to reach such a level of purity, the creation of other entities should be understood as forbidden. The fact that Rava did not construct a conscious being capable of speech is meant to imply that such an act of creation impossible for those laden with sin. Furthermore, the fact that his friend sent the creature back to its dust implies that we ought not attempt to construct such creatures.

Navon concludes that attempts to create truly conscious technology should therefore be banned. While these stories emanate from the Jewish tradition, Navon argues that the source of this tradition is the Torah, which itself demands that it be translated into seventy languages to address the whole of humanity. Many non-Jewish thinkers throughout the ages have found that the teachings of the Torah contain a universal relevance beyond parochial faiths and beliefs.

Ultimately, while the pursuit of knowledge to improve the world is strongly encouraged in the Jewish tradition, it is a pursuit that must remain within ethical bounds and driven by an appreciation for the creator of whose world we are in partnership to perfect.

William Barylo

is a sociologist, photographer and filmmaker and postdoctoral researcher in Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK where he studies how young Muslims in Europe and North America navigate race, class and gender barriers from a decolonial and restorative perspective. William also produces films on social issues to disseminate knowledge to wider audiences, including documentary and fiction films to equip students and community organizers with practical tools for navigating the world, and help businesses nurture better work cultures. He holds a PhD from the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris, France

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