Robo-Ethics & Rabbis

Being Jewish during the robot apocalypse...

December 25, 2017 11:07

Can a robot be counted as part of a minyan?

Probably not, but the very fact that the question is being asked should give us pause for thought. Robotics technology – and the artificial intelligence which goes along with it – is making great strides. Quite literally, as a matter of fact.

Where just a few years ago two-legged robots, made in the image of man, tended to fall over more easily than an overpaid striker in a penalty box, things are different now. Earlier this year, a company called Boston Dynamics unveiled their new creation, Atlas, a robot which perfectly navigated an obstacle course, jump after jump, ending with a successful backflip before raising its arms in triumph. 

A Limmud panel comprised of Kevin Lieberman, a robotics Phd student, Jonathan Pam, community development director at Masorti Judaism, Rabbi Michael Even David of Edgware Masorti synagogue and Deborah Blausten, a student rabbi at Leo Baeck college, discussed robotics, and examples within Judaism of beings with certain capabilities equal or even superior to humans.

The Golem was a key topic of discussion, with some disagreement as to the nature of the humanity of a being, created from clay by man.

“According to Jewish law, the Golem is alive”, Rabbi Even David said. However, Rabbi Blausten pointed out that from a discussion of Golems in the Gemara, it would seem as if such creatures failed the Turing test (whether it is possible to distinguish a robot from a human). When one sage sent a Golem to another, it was not able to satisfactorily converse with him, whereby the second sage turned it back to dust. 

Other concepts discussed included the idea of angels. Heavenly beings, angels are set to do specific tasks, without a choice. Indisputably close to God, angels nonetheless cannot form part of a minyan (they are not Jewish). Robots are not yet at that stage, and it was pointed out that Rabbinical courts are unlikely to accept robots on Jewish conversion courses in the near future (leaving aside, of course, the problems that the ritual immersion at the end of the process might mean for an electronically powered entity).

The concept of a “shliach” – someone who performs a commandment on behalf of someone else – was also considered. What of a robot which was acting as an avatar on behalf of an incapacitated person? Furthermore, what happens if a driverless car – which is also a form of robot – causes an accident? Who is responsible? The owner of the car? The company which made the car? The engineer who put it together? Given that there are whole tractates of Talmud dealing with the concept of damages and who owes what, it seems like this is an area which is ripe for halachic exploration. 

Rabbi Blausten described the potential age of advanced robotics as “an opportunity rather than a threat”, having earlier pointed out that the language in the Talmud “is not about ‘should’ we make a Golem, but ‘how.”

However, she also noted that there is a concept in Deuteronomy of Jews being obligated, when making a house with a flat roof, to build a fence around the edge so that no-one should fall off. Under Jewish law, creators have a responsibility to protect others from their creations – and surely this is a concept which remains true when it comes to robotics.

December 25, 2017 11:07

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive