We are cyborgs - and we need Judaic thought to help us deal with it

In a Limmud address, cyber expert Maureen Kendal explained how Jewish ethics apply in our brave new world


We are all becoming cyborgs - and Jewish ethics are necessary to help humans navigate this new reality, technology expert Maureen Kendal argued in an address at Limmud.

Ms Kendal, director of tech security company CyberCare and author of Cyber and You, about the impact of technology on humans, said that modern facts of life such as internet shopping and virtual communities mean we have already become transhuman whether we like it or not - and by applying Judaic principles to the design and oversight of those systems humans can mitigate the risks involved. 

“We are all digitally reluctant - there is a lot of fear around. Many people find this whole area very ‘creepy’. The phrase ‘uncanny valley’, as coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, describes human revulsion towards robots. It builds on Sigmund Freud’s ‘Unheimliche’, or the repressed fear of death or the other,” said Ms Kendal.

On top of that instinctive rejection of technology, she said, there are the well-founded concerns on issues from the erosion of democracy and privacy to automation taking away jobs and the breakdown of human relationships.

Ms Kendal, who has spent five years “living in the virtual world, working with people who have multiple selves and avatars” said the Torah teaches us about the importance of recognising our vulnerability, a step which is psychologically crucial to making a success of our “cyber selves”.

She cited Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Martin Buber and Jonathan Wittenberg as thinkers who have inspired her and given her a focus on the “moral imagination - for how we rethink the now and how we can recreate our future. 

“I went to a talk where the question was asked, ‘can we include a robot in the minyan?’ I think we can. The reason is: nefesh - what does it mean to be human? What is soul?”

Among the components that might make up ‘soul’, she argued, are “empathy, creative problem solving, intellectual integrity and robustness. Some also say, the way I connect with others, nature around me and something beyond, an intangible otherness that I can feel but can’t put into words.”

If these components can be embedded into a smart software system, said Ms Kendal, the worry from a human - and Judaic - point of view is that while this data could influence the overall design of a system, a individual’s unique data pattern - or ‘digital soul’ - may be lost.

For Ms Kendal, Jewish thought provides the beginning of an answer to this problem: the system must be designed following an ethical code which both protects the individual and allows for their freedom - the Judaic concept of the “narrow bridge” taught by Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.

“The question is, how do we translate the human into the system?” asked Ms Kendal, adding that Torah teaches us we always need humans “in the loop”.

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