Artificial Intelligence, the Golem, & the Genie

Artificial Intelligence, the Golem, & the Genie March 9, 2023

The development of artificial intelligence is filling many people with alarm.  Applications such as ChatGPT–which can generate scarily-believable imitations of everything from school writing assignments to sermons–make our digital devices seem human.

This, in turn, is provoking all kinds of debate about what this means and what to do about it.  What is the difference between an artificially-intelligent machine and a person?  Might we develop robots some day that are, in effect, a different kind of sentient being?  What are the ethical issues surrounding artificial intelligence?

Are there theological issues?  Would a rational robot have a soul and be in need of conversion?  Would it be unfallen?  Or is the whole concept a dangerous delusion?

As I have posted before, drawing on the work of someone who is an expert on both the human mind and computers, the brain is not a computer.  We use language drawn from the workings of the mind–such as “memory,” “language,” “information,” and “artificial intelligence”–to describe computer functions, but these are metaphors.  We won’t be able to download our minds into the internet so we can live forever, nor will computers ever become so advanced that they will attain consciousness.  Let alone take over the world, eliminate us as parasites, or become an all-powerful, all-knowing god.

That’s what most people are afraid of about artificial intelligence, but issues do remain.  Deborah Netburn has written an article entitled Can religion save us from Artificial Intelligence? that points out that religious traditions have already, as of long ago, dealt with the implications of non-human intelligences.

She discusses the legend from Jewish folklore of the golem, a man-made monster, whose name is the source of Tolkien’s character and whose character is the basis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  In the stories, Golems were fashioned from mud and became animate when the Divine Name written on a piece of paper was put into its mouth or head.  Later rabbis surely knew the story of the golem was legendary, but they speculated about what it would mean.  Netburn writes,

Since the earliest days of AI research in the 1950s, the desire to create a human-like intelligence has been compared to the legend of the golem, a mythical creature from Jewish folklore, created by powerful rabbis from mud and magic to do its master’s bidding. The most famous golem is the one allegedly made by the 16th century Rabbi Judah Low ben Bezulel of Prague to protect the Jewish people from antisemitic attacks. The golem also served as an inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

For centuries, the idea of an animate creature made by man and lacking a divine spark or a soul, has been part of the Jewish imagination. Rabbis have argued over whether a golem can be considered a person, if it could be counted in a minyan, (the quorum of 10 men required for traditional Jewish public prayer), if it could be killed, and how it should be treated.

From these rabbinic discussions, an ethical stance on artificial intelligence emerged long before computers were invented, said Nachson Goltz, a law professor at Edith Cowan University in Australia, who has written about the Jewish perspective on AI. While it is considered permissible to create artificial entities to assist us in our tasks, “we must remember our responsibility to keep control over them, and not the other way around,” he wrote.

Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weiss, a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel, echoed this idea in a recent speech. “In every story of the golem, the golem is finally destroyed or dismantled,” he said. “In other words, the lesson the rabbis are teaching is that anything man makes has to be controlled by man.”

Another ancient legend that seems applicable to our seemingly magical technology that does our bidding, but which threatens to destroy us, is that of the djinn.  That is to say, the genie.

Another cautionary tale from Jewish and Muslim folklore revolves around the djinn, a nonhuman entity made of smokeless fire, that can occasionally be bound by humans and chained to their will. This is the origin of the story of the genie who can grant us anything we want, but cannot be put back in the bottle.

“The stories of the genie are an example of what happens when you ask a nonhuman to grant human wishes,” said Damien Williams, a professor of philosophy and data science at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. “What comes out the other side seems shocking and punitive, but if you actually trace it back, they are simply granting those desires to the fullest extent of their logical implications.”

So what do we learn from these ancient tales about today’s artificial intelligence?  Our technology is just an extension of ourselves.  It exists to fulfill our desires.  It can turn against us and harm us.  It must be controlled.

Can we just get rid of it?  Well, unfortunately, we can’t put the genie back into the bottle.

Photo:  Reproduction of the Prague Golem by user Thander –, Public Domain,

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