Rabbi’s Message – May 2017

From the Rabbi – Does your computer know you better than you know yourself? (and if not now, might it one day?)

“You might like this” the email in my inbox tells me. How many times, after you’ve researched a trip you might be taking, or clicked on a link to check out a clothing or shoe sale online, have you received a follow-up email that starts like that? Behind that email are computer algorithms that are tracking my online searches and using the patterns that they discern to try and influence the next decision that I make. Rarely does it work, but once in a while they get it just right, and I find myself making an impulse purchase, or even feeling grateful that I had the opportunity to jump on a fantastic deal.
While this may seem like a relatively minor, and sometimes annoying, facet of technology driving consumerism, the potential for this technology is significantly greater. Might there come a time when a computer knows me better than I know myself? Might the ability of a computer to meet many of our desires and some of our essential needs by predicting what we will want and delivering it to us with the touch of a button begin to change our own self-understanding of what our wants and needs really are?
Another scenario –– back when I was a graduate student I would spend hours upon hours in the journal stacks of the university library, tracking down articles that might contain a useful insight to my area of research, based on subject searches through multiple index volumes. I might find a few paragraphs of great material in the course of reading twenty or more articles. Today, a keyword search online can bring those articles to me in seconds, and far more accurately highlight the most relevant pieces to read. The result is far greater efficiencies in time. But my general knowledge on a broader range of ideas will inevitably be more limited. I may be walking around with opinions on all kinds of things that I know less about than I used to. I can “google” the answer to almost any question to add knowledge at a time of my choosing –– so long as I have enough self-awareness to know what it is that I don’t know, and know how to ask the question. Then there are the algorithms that determine what I see on my Facebook feed –– and what I don’t. Are we living in smaller and smaller bubbles where what we define as “community” excludes so many that we no longer learn the skills for living side-by-side with people who think differently from us?
A third scenario –– we are getting ever-closer to a time when autonomous cars take over the roads. Overall, we expect this to drastically bring down the accident rate and save thousands of lives every year. Currently, the vast majority of road accidents are due to human error. Yet, there are still likely to be times when a car has to make a decision in a split second where the outcome will harm someone. How will the programmers create algorithms that enable such a car to make the most ethical choice under the circumstances? Does the very question of what is “ethical” change when it becomes part of a vehicle’s predetermined programming?
Judaism has, for its entire history, been a holistic tradition that offers a roadmap for intentional living. Centuries of philosophical and ethical debate are recorded in our writings. Why were we created? Why is human nature the way it is? How much choice or control do we really have? How are we meant to live in relation to others? What does a better future look like? With questions like these and more, rabbinic tradition did not only explore these broad questions, but debated how these ideas would play out in specific situations and cases, as they sought to make Judaism a way of thinking and being that shaped everyday life and decision-making.
What would it look like to take some of the cutting edge developments of technological innovation and use some of the wisdom of Jewish ethical and philosophical enquiry to bring greater awareness to the role of technology in our lives, how it is changing us, and how it might be changing where we are headed? That is what our Scientists in Synagogues program, launched last High Holy Days, is all about. We are excited to be hosting a conversation with someone who can help us begin to explore these questions. Dr. Jeremy Wertheimer is a VP at Google. He has a PhD from MIT in Artificial Intelligence. Also, he happens to be a traditional, practicing Jew. I hope that you will join Jeremy for an evening of conversation over wine, cheese, and other refreshments on Monday, May 8, 7:30 pm.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz