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Op-eds

The Golem still lurks in our Brave New World

  • GeoffEditorial
What do religions say about the technological tsunami flooding our lives today? Is the increasingly rapid “disruptive innovation” an angel or devil? Leading Johannesburg techno-expert Arthur Goldstuck raised some ancient but supremely relevant Jewish perspectives at Limmud in Johannesburg last weekend.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Aug 10, 2017

Sketching technological changes from 100 years ago to the present, he left the audience fascinated, but also unnerved. A century ago, individual innovations appeared occasionally which we take for granted today, such as the portable electric drill; colourful gift-wrap created by Hallmark, which replaced brown paper wrapping; Converse All Stars athletic shoes; and others.

In 2017, however, every device and industry is being technologically disrupted - or re-innovated - at increasingly speedy rates, with everything being connected via the Internet and other means, and building on each other. We can hardly keep up.

Facebook, for example, connects almost the entire world, except China where it is not allowed; in this era of instant innovation, new products and information reach millions within seconds. Some two billion people – one in five of the world’s population - and 17 million South Africans are on Facebook.

The next major innovative platform, predicts Goldstuck, will be Virtual Reality devices, allowing one to experience events taking place around the corner or a world away.

Soon, unmanned robots will proliferate as waiters in restaurants, as bank clerks, teachers and so on; they will be caregivers in hospitals and homes which will sense minute amounts of germs and report them to medical staff - Japan, with its elderly population, already uses 20 000 robots as caregivers.

By 2019, artificial intelligence devices should be pervasive. These would include, for example, devices fixed to peoples’ brains doing routine ECGs and electronically sending results to each individual’s doctor.

Autonomous, self-driving cars already exist. By 2022, farmers will insert chips into livestock - such as dairy cows - in the field, to monitor temperature and other aspects, transmitting them to the farmer’s house to inform him which cows are ready for milking.

These devices do not only perform jobs previously done by humans, but accumulate masses of information about people’s movements, likes, dislikes and behaviour.

Despite the benefits, this is potentially dangerous and invasive: Where is it stored; how is it used? It could be employed for nefarious purposes. For example, someone could hold you to ransom with such information.

 Hospitals’ patient records could be captured and only released for a payoff - this already happened recently in UK hospitals.

Could such technologies become an existential threat to humankind, outsmarting people? What if “intelligent” devices behave negatively rather than positively? Such a technological scenario was predicted decades ago in Aldous Huxley’s science fiction classic, “Brave New World” in 1932.

Drawing on Jewish sources, Goldstuck referred to a man-shaped creature made of mud created by the Maharal in the 1500s - the notorious Golem of Prague which has entered popular language as a saboteur of the foundations of a good society.

Legend held that the Golem was given “life” when a parchment containing holy words was placed under its tongue; if the creature became dangerously destructive, it could be “switched off” by removing the parchment.

Could the Golem be an archetype for modern artificial intelligence? How would one switch it off?

Goldstuck quotes other Jewish sages who approved of technology and innovation, seeing them as part of human creativity, but says the privacy of a person’s inner life is sacrosanct - meaning that Facebook’s collecting and using of such private information may cross a forbidden red line, according to Judaism. With personal privacy being so crucial, trust in technology is lacking.

Jewish sages foresaw the potential dangers of this techno-Golem centuries ago, as seductive as it is. We would do well to heed their warning. 

Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog sifrintakingissue.wordpress.com

 

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