The cyborg revolution is here. Is it good for the Jews?

Genetic engineering, nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces will soon transform us into a species of human-machine hybrids, says Yuval Harari. What do Jewish and moral traditions have to say about this post-human future?

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A cyborg.
Illustrative: A cyborg.

In the 1991 film “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg, a combination of robot and human who is sent back in time to protect a young boy. The cyborg has human skin and blood, with robot parts underneath and a computer chip for a brain. Bullets and crashes barely dent him, while his superhuman strength and encyclopedic brain make it almost impossible for humans to defeat him. But the cyborg is lacking in other ways. He does not understand what’s wrong with killing people and seems to lack emotions and empathy.

Over the course of the film, Schwarzenegger’s cyborg evolves. He learns to use slang: “Hasta la vista, baby!” and even tells the boy at one point, “I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do.”

The Terminator is science fiction, right? Well, it used to be. Today, cutting-edge technologies as well as leading scientists and thinkers are raising the specter of a world in which humans merge with machines and cyborgs become commonplace.

Earlier this year, international panic greeted the announcement by scientists in China that they had genetically engineered human embryos (with mixed results) using the powerful new CRISPR technique. Within a few years, IVF clinics could be offering parents designer traits (height, muscles, resistance to Alzheimers) and potentially traits of their own invention (wings? killer strength?).

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) this month revealed that it has implanted chips on paralysed patients’ brains, allowing them to move and experience sensation from a robotic arm. But the same technology could be used to give an able-bodied person six extra arms that they control with their thoughts, or create a super soldier with guns and spears as additional limbs.

As technology makes such things possible, many of us feel at once exhilarated, terrified and powerless. What is it that makes us human, and is there any sacred line we must not cross? As we plunge into the future, can we look to the past, to Jewish and ethical traditions, for guidance?

The post-human future

Yuval Noah Harari, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, told The Times of Israel that we are indeed on the cusp of a revolution.

“Throughout history there were many economic, political and technological revolutions,” he wrote in an email.

“But one thing remained constant: humanity itself. We still have the same body and mind as our ancestors in the Roman Empire or in ancient Egypt. Yet in the coming decades, for the first time in history, humanity itself will undergo a radical revolution. Not only our tools and politics, but our bodies and minds will be transformed by genetic engineering, nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces. Bodies and minds will be the main products of the 21st century economy.”

Harari says that when we think about the future we generally think about a world in which people are identical to us in every important way but enjoy better technology: laser guns, intelligent robots, and spaceships that travel at the speed of light.

“Yet the revolutionary potential of future technologies is to change Homo sapiens itself, including our bodies and our minds, and not merely our vehicles and weapons. The most amazing thing about the future won’t be the spaceships, but the beings flying them.”

According to Harari, the problems that humanity is currently preoccupied with, like the global economic crisis, the Islamic State and the situation in the Ukraine pale in comparison to the question of human enhancement.

Yuval Noah Harari (Courtesy)
Yuval Noah Harari (Courtesy)

“Given the breathtaking pace of developments in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, I would be extremely surprised if in 200 years, earth will still be populated by humans like you and me. We are probably one of the last generations of Homo Sapiens. We will still have grandchildren, but I am not so sure that our grandchildren will have grandchildren. At least not human ones. They will be more different from us than we are different from Neanderthals or chimpanzees.”

The Singularity is near

Harari is not alone in his predictions. His views on human history and our post-human future have struck a chord. Over 100,000 people have taken his online course A Brief History of Humankind. His book Sapiens was a New York Times and international bestseller which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg chose recently for his twice monthly online book club.

Harari can be said to subscribe to the notion of the Singularity, a highly popular belief in Silicon Valley and tech circles worldwide. The Singularity is the notion that within a few generations, technology will become so sophisticated that it reaches a tipping point where it will alter human existence in ways that are inconceivable to us today. Science fiction writer Vernor Vinge predicts this will happen in 2030 while Google executive Ray Kurzweil estimates 2045. Most adherents believe the Singularity will come about through artificial intelligence, at the moment when robots become self aware. Kurzweil envision a utopia, where humans, at least some humans, achieve immortality by becoming cyborgs. Others, like physicist Stephen Hawking or tech entrepreneur Elon Musk fear that artificially intelligent robots may turn against their human creators and kill them.

Harari’s view is closer to Kurzweil’s:

“I think it is far more likely that we will merge with the robots, than that they will revolt and kill us. The big danger is not that some evil artificial intelligence (AI) will murder us, but rather that a superior artificial intelligence will make most humans useless. Computer algorithms are catching up with humans in more and more cognitive fields. It is extremely unlikely that computers will develop anything even close to human consciousness, but in order to replace humans in the economy, computers don’t need consciousness. They just need intelligence.”

The Jewish ethics of cyborgs

If technology is about to lead us into such a radically new world, perhaps Jewish tradition has something to say about this? For instance, that it is hubris for humans to be tinkering with God’s creation?

No, says Rabbi Ira Bedzow, director of the Biomedical Ethics and Humanities Program at New York Medical College. The Jewish tradition in general has a favorable view of medicine, which can include human enhancement.

For instance, there are modern rabbinical responsa (rulings) on the issue of cosmetic surgery.

“Some have said that cosmetic surgery is forbidden if it is outside the boundaries of healing. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said it’s okay if a person feels they fall below societal norms and it would help them get married or feel better about themselves.”

In that vein, in a society where having eight arms is common, if a person decides to augment themselves with six additional robotic arms, “I personally may not ever want them, but if it’s of benefit to someone, then congratulations,” says Bedzow.

Ira Bedzow (Courtesy)

Bedzow cites a midrash that expresses the favorable view of improving creation as long as the purpose is moral. A wicked Roman provocateur asks Rabbi Akiva whether the works of God are greater or the works of man. Akiva surprised him by saying the works of man, and brings him some ears of corn along with some cakes. “The former are the works of God, the latter of man. Are not the latter superior to the ears of corn?” So too with circumcision, says Akiva. If God hadn’t wanted Jews to perform circumcision, God would have created babies that were born circumcised, “but the Holy One blessed be He has given the commandments for the sole purpose of refining our character through them.”

However, says Bedzow, one ethical red flag is the genetic editing of embryos.

“We need to think about whether parents own their children or if they are only their guardians. When genetic engineering procedures, for example, are still experimental, we would also want to consider how much risk is appropriate to take with another’s life.”

Who’s afraid of becoming a cyborg?

What is it we really fear when we contemplate the cyborg future? According to Yuval Noah Harari, it’s change.

“People are afraid of change and of the unknown. But change is inevitable. We need to confront the change rather than run away from it.”

Philosopher and computer scientist Jaron Lanier is a prominent critic of Singularity and the vision of human immortality through cyborgism.

“The idea that people would change does not bother me,” says Lanier, who is considered one of the pioneering figures in the field of virtual reality.

Jaron Lanier (Photo credit:CC BY-SA Meet the Media Guru, Flickr)
Jaron Lanier (Photo credit:CC BY-SA Meet the Media Guru, Flickr)

“People have changed a great deal from ancient times,” Lanier told The Times of Israel.

“We now live twice as long. We’re able to avoid many disease conditions that used to be commonplace, and to have better nutrition, be more able bodied, taller. There’s even an argument that IQ has been rising. I don’t mind people changing.”

What Lanier does mind is the idea of the Singularity, a sudden change that transforms everything at once.

“If you want to have that level of change it means that you’re opposed to learning and to memory because learning and memory can only take place gradually. In that sense, I’d say the Singularity is profoundly anti-Jewish because what the Jewish tradition brought to the world was the idea of memory. We keep the Torah, we very carefully copy it so as not to forget it. Some of the Ten Commandments are about remembering things, remembering Shabbat, remembering the nature of God. So we’re all about memory. And the idea of the Singularity is precisely the rejection of memory. Because what else could it mean? So I say it’s the most anti-Jewish idea in history.”

What do you think of the idea that we will all be a meld between humans and machines and that we’re the last generation that will have grandchildren?

“There’s a very strong fantasy in the technology world of overcoming death through technology. And it’s totally true that if that happens we would have to stop having children and we would turn into a very boring plutocracy very quickly. I think we would have to reinvent a new kind of death for ourselves and it would be a worse kind of death.”

Cyborg haves and have nots


Lanier says something else that’s surprising: that when we talk about immortality through cyborgism we’re actually talking about inequality.

“The current stance in the technical world is not immortality for everybody but biological immortality for a few elite people and then simulated immortality for everyone else. Simulated immortality would be some kind of artificial intelligence program that creates a ghost of people so their family could remember them.”

“The software behind artificial intelligence is always much less interesting than we pretend. It wouldn’t actually embody anything like a person. There are already all these projects to make artificial ghosts of soldiers. What would actually happen is there’d be these programs where we pretend that we’ve given immortality to many people and then we’d actually try to preserve the bodies of certain elite people in the technical world. That’s a terrible fantasy. That’s something close to the purest evil.”

Harari does not dispute that the cyborgism could lead to much greater inequality than we have today.

“Throughout history,” Harari says, “ the rich and powerful always argued that they were superior to everyone else. That they were more clever, more courageous, more creative, more moral than everyone else. This was not true. As far as we know, there were no real differences in abilities between the emperors and the peasants. However, in the coming generations humankind might split into biological castes, with upper-class humans purchasing upgraded abilities for themselves and their children. These upgraded super-humans may really be more clever, more courageous, and more creative than everybody else.”

The humans who don’t or can’t afford to upgrade themselves could find themselves cast aside.

(blue singularity in space image via Shutterstock)

That’s because historically, says Harari, “intelligence always went hand in hand with consciousness. The only intelligent entities were conscious entities. The only ones who could play chess, drive vehicles, fight wars and diagnose diseases were conscious human beings. But intelligence is now decoupling from consciousness. We are developing non-conscious algorithms that can play chess, drive vehicles, fight wars and diagnose diseases better than us. When the economy has to choose between intelligence and consciousness, the economy will choose intelligence. It has no real need for consciousness. Once AI outperforms human drivers and doctors, millions of drivers and doctors around the world will lose their jobs, even though the AI has no consciousness.”

“What will be the use of humans in such a world? What will we do with billions of economically useless humans? We don’t know. We don’t have any economic model for such a situation. This may well be the greatest economic and political question of the twenty-first century.”

Is artificial intelligence a fraud?

“How is the idea of people becoming cyborgs connected to the the idea that artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence?” The Times of Israel asked Jaron Lanier.

“It’s identical to it.”

Yes, but one idea is that we’re going to become cyborgs–merge with computers and the other idea is that robots will take over?

“If you believe that these super intelligent machines will take over then some people believe they’ll keep humans as pets or humans will merge into them, while others believe humans will be completely destroyed or eaten by them. There is some sort of distinction there but the thing is, I think the whole basis of the debate is stupid.”

Why Lanier thinks the idea of superhuman intelligence is stupid

Back in the 1950s, explains Lanier, there was a fantasy that we’d be able to write perfect computer programs that would become intelligent and do things like translate between languages, much in the same way a human being does.

“These fantasies never worked out. What we call artificial intelligence only started to work because of this other thing called big data.”

Basically, in order to produce a translation, our current translation software scans millions of human translations each day and calculates the statistically most likely translations for a particular word, phrase or sentence.

“Artificial intelligence doesn’t really exist. All it is is a different way of packaging the efforts of millions of people. To me there’s a total absurdity in saying that AI will surpass people because it’s made of people. It isn’t really something by itself. Based on everything we’ve seen demonstrated until now and every indication from research, it’s not something different from people.”

But maybe there will be a breakthrough and AI will actually be intelligent? Maybe we’ll figure out how the brain works?

“Well, maybe someday. This is the phenomenon I like to call premature mystery reduction. On the one hand, if someone says, ‘Oh it’s impossible, we’ll never understand how thinking works,’ that seems crazy to me because of course it’s possible. But then if someone says ‘oh, we’ve already done it’ or ‘we’re absolutely sure we will do it in a certain amount of time,’ then that’s also crazy. To be very clear, we currently don’t know what a thought is, we don’t have any scientific model of these things. Someday maybe. But we tend to act as if we already have it.”

For this reason, says Lanier, there is no problem of superfluous people who will be made redundant by artificial intelligence.

“Since artificial intelligence is a fake, a phony and doesn’t exist, it’s not that those people aren’t needed. Its that they’re needed in different ways than they were needed before.”

“So if you take language translation as an example, technical companies like Microsoft, Google, IBM and Apple literally steal live translations every day from millions of translators all over the world to get our example set to do our [machine translations]. We don’t tell them that we’re stealing from them and we certainly don’t pay them. So if you ask what will we do with all those people, we just pay them for the new way in which they’re useful, which is providing the data to the so-called artificial-intelligence algorithms.”

Lanier uses the term “we” because he sold a company to Google and is currently employed by Microsoft. He has mentioned in other interviews that these companies are somewhat receptive his critiques of them. Lanier’s book “Who Owns the Future?” in which he delineates these ideas, won the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2014.


“The solution to this problem is incredibly easy and it’s called honesty. If we stop stealing data from people then the problem solves itself. We still need those people and we’re still using their stuff.”

Yes, journalists have seen their income decimated in the last ten years.

“I want you to understand that your loss of income is exactly precisely the same thing as artificial intelligence. They’re indistinguishable. Artificial intelligence just means stealing data from people.”

Reality or religion?


If the idea that artificially intelligent beings will render ordinary humans superfluous is not true — if, as Lanier argues, it is a hope or an ideology rather than a fact — where does this ideology come from?

Boston University professor Richard Landes is a historian who specializes in millennialism — that is, movements throughout history, from stone age cargo cults to the French Revolution, religious movements, Marxism, Nazism and global Jihad, that seek to create a perfect society on earth.

Landes says that human enhancement per se — glasses, bionic arms and even genetic engineering — are not millennialist, but the idea that they will lead to a fundamental transformation of the human condition, is.

Richard Landes (photo credit: Facebook)
Richard Landes (photo credit: Facebook)

”The Millennial dream has immense appeal, a long history of seducing people into unbelievably stupid and/or destructive scenarios, including some of the smartest people on the planet. It’s unintended consequences are often productive, but it can be incredibly destructive.”

What is the appeal?

“Look at ISIS, which is a millennial movement. We’re stunned by its attractiveness, we’re stunned that anyone, much less so many people, want to join up. That’s because we underestimate how attractive it is to believe that you are part of a radical transformation of the human condition, that the entire history of mankind has been building up to this moment.”

At the same time, says Landes, the very appeal of the Singularity should raise skepticism.

“People have been announcing millennial transformations for millennia. They have always been wrong. The odds are high against this tech-fueled fantasy actually coming out the way they imagine it.”

This doesn’t mean that people won’t have six arms or designer babies, just that the human condition will continue very much the same way afterward, with its frustrations, disappointments, triumphs, conflicts, passions and, yes, mortality.

The widow and orphan


Landes also asserts that the Singularity movement is elitist. Its adherents “fancy themselves among the people who will be part of the new world. They won’t be the cast offs. Believers characteristically imagine they’ll be marching with the other saints.”

The idea, no matter how wild a guess, that the vast majority of people will become economically useless, and watch video games on drugs, he says “shows a contempt for the rest of humanity that is breathtaking, and not Jewish. This is one of the ways millennial ideas seduce the self-absorbed. They’re not thinking about the losers — they’re an afterthought. We, the chosen, are the cosmic heroes.”

sapiensHarari, for his part, says his depictions are descriptive, not prescriptive. The cyborg future, he says, “will result in enormous new opportunities, as well as frightful new dangers. There is no point being optimistic or pessimistic about it. We need to be realist. We need to understand that this is really happening – it is science rather than science fiction – and it is high-time we start thinking about this very seriously.”

So how do we think about it?

A Jewish approach to cyborgism, says Rabbi Ira Bedzow, is to reject the idea that might makes right. If we’re adding robot parts or genetically modifying ourselves so that we can better compete in the economy, “that’s social Darwinism, the idea that life is a matter of competition and that success determines what is right, that we need to be as fit as possible to keep up. But that’s not the Jewish view.”

The Jewish view, says Bedzow, is “do not take advantage of any widow or orphan” by which the Torah means anyone who is oppressed. It may be fine to enhance yourself, but it depends on your purpose. “Those who can survive should be helping those who are having trouble.”

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