My talk at the Diplosphere 2023 conference in Wellington.
Kia ora koutou, ko Dave Moskovitz ahau.
I’m Dave Moskovitz, and I know many you in this room in a variety of contexts, either as an entrepreneur, an investor, a company director, a software developer, and other things too. But today, I am going to be talking to you as a spiritual person, coming from my own Jewish perspective. I don’t talk about this a lot in my professional life, as some people find it a bit woo-woo and it is not fashionable in this day and age to be religious. So I hope that you’ll still respect me in the morning and not ridicule me for having an imaginary friend that isn’t an AI, and that you’ll agree with me that even the most rational of us has an inner yearning for spiritual connection to other people and the universe.
So you asked me, what are the spiritual implications of AI.
But before we talk about that, I want to explore an important point: could an AI be considered to be equivalent to a human? I’d argue that from a spiritual perspective, the answer is no. And this is likely to continue to be the case for the indefinite future.
Why is that?
At a physical level, humans are biological forms, and AIs are simulations running on machines.
In Jewish thought, and according to our creation myth in Genesis, humans are unique in that we were created in the divine image and endowed with a soul. Now I’m not a biblical literalist, and you could equally argue that the God was created in the image of humans. But that said, there will always be human characteristics that can’t be simulated by deterministic automata. We humans have an inexplicable biological connection to each other and the universe.
And referring back to the creation myth, everything changed when we ate the apple and acquired the knowledge of the difference between good and evil.
The concept of a soul is significant. And I believe this is the key thing that humans have that AIs can’t have. But what is a soul?
In Jewish thought, there are three different Hebrew words and three levels that describe a soul.
The first level, nefesh (נפש), refers to life itself, and in our creation myth, it is what God breathed into Adam to give him life. It is the thing that separates animate beings from inanimate objects.
The second level of soul, ruach (רוח), refers to consciousness and emotions. These are the things that drive our everyday decisions, how we can conceive of ourselves, and how we relate to others.
The third level of soul, n’shamah (נשמה), refers to intellect, morality, and our connection to the divine. This is the thing that separates people from other life forms.
These three aspects of soul are what makes our lives sacred, and cannot be performed by a machine. The Talmud tells us that whosoever destroys a single soul it is as if they have destroyed the entire world; and whosoever saves a single soul it is as if they have saved the entire world. Placing a high value on human life will be a critical principle in a post-AI world.
The reality is that today’s generative AIs are driven by stochastic algorithms – their transformers are trained on large data sets harvested from the wealthy white cis het male dominated Internet to produce convincing outputs, not a thorough understanding of the “why” of things and the nuance required to master the moral or spiritual implications of a subject, or take accountability for their actions.
Humans must control the things they create and train. Anyone who has ever written even a simple computer program will understand unintended consequences and side effects. This becomes even more important as the things we create become more powerful and lifelike.
You might say that all this will change when we finally develop an Artificial General Intelligence, but I believe that is still a considerable ways away. An AGI would need to fully understand, first hand, what it means to be human. From sucking on your mother’s breast, to learning language by example, to having a fight in the schoolyard, to your first love, to feeling betrayed by those you trust, to rejoicing in the success of others. But mostly, craving deep connection to other humans, contemplating the meaning of life, and of quintessential importance, understanding the difference between good and evil. Anything less is a low-fidelity simulation, a derivative story about a story.
So half of the answer to the question, what are the spiritual implications of AI, is that for the AIs, there aren’t any spiritual implications because they are not spiritual beings.
But the other half of the question is, what are the spiritual implications of AI for humans?
I know most of the people in the room today will agree with me that AI will have far more impact on humanity than the Internet did. It is an incredibly powerful tool that can help us become much better people. AI can help us better understand the world around us, it can help us express ourselves better, and it can even help us connect with other humans, as well as the divine.
As a research tool, AI is second to none in helping summarise centuries of thought in a cogent way. But check your citations.
There are stories of clergy from different religions using ChatGPT to write sermons, where the generated sermons were wildly more popular tham ones written by humans. Your mileage may vary.
And if we can understand our history and philosophy better by using this tool, and if it can help us to discover richer meaning in our lives, then that’s a good thing.
But the real spiritual dividend from AI will be in liberating us from the drudgery of daily work which will give us more time to concentrate on the things that make us uniquely human – spirituality, creativity, philosophy, the arts, and forming stronger connections to each other.
But this won’t happen by itself. We need to work together to ensure that the benefits of AI are shared universally with our fellow humans, and not just for the benefit of the overclass, according to moral and ethical principles such as those provided by our spiritual traditions. AI will fundamentally challenge some of the basic precepts of capitalism, and it will be up to all of us, especially people like the thought leaders in this room, to ensure that the post-AI world is better, fairer, and more fulfilling than the pre-AI world. It will enable people to value each other in a much more meaningful way, not just your annual salary or how much property you own, but perhaps, inter alia, on how well you’ve understood the difference between good and evil.
We have an unnatural fixation on creating artificial intelligence, but intelligence is not the only thing that matters. In addition to intelligence, we need empathy, caring, love, and spiritual connection. These are essential parts of being human, and our future ability to survive and thrive depends on them.
Let’s work together on that.