Judaism in the Age of AI Peril

By Andrew Fretwell

Good news! The Jewish community’s thorniest internal debates may be resolved in our lifetime. But the bad news is this might happen because Judaism is walking into an existential trap, one for which we are totally unprepared: the temptation to surrender personal choice to artificial intelligence. Judaism is all about choices and their consequences. The Torah begins with Adam and Eve’s irreversible decision and ends with Moses beseeching us to make better decisions. In between we have memories about individuals, families, and nations clumsily learning how to make good choices. But that skillset may become as useful as building sundials.

We are so unprepared because since man’s first invention, technological advances have opened up new choices, adding myriad layers of options and complexity to our experience. Compasses enabled us to navigate to new places. The printing press gave us more texts to decipher. Steam engines and the accompanying industrial revolution gave us leisure time for activities of our choosing. The list seems endless, but the twenty first century is reversing that correlation. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are increasingly competent at relieving us of the onerous demand of making choices. After all, when there are dozens of ways to get from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side, hundreds of restaurants in my neighborhood to eat at in my extended neighborhood, thousands of shows on Netflix to watch, and millions of items to buy on Amazon, who doesn’t need a little assistance?

And therein lies the danger. Our customer data is being leveraged by algorithms to fuel commerce, and with the data we willingly provide, these algorithms understand us increasingly well. Recommendation engines may currently be hit or miss, but they are rapidly improving and with every improvement they become more deeply embedded in our decision making. As observed by Noah Yuval Harari in Homo Deus, “Every day millions of people decide to grant their smartphone a bit more control.” At some point soon, Amazon will know exactly what I should buy, Facebook will know precisely who my next friend should be, my Apple Watch will know when I should exercise down to the minute, and Yelp will know each menu item I should order, all before I do. We are quickly approaching a world where we can go days without making a solo decision, so where is the tipping point when we concede that we are no longer the best decision makers over daily lives?

The abdication of choice existentially threatens Judaism more than anti-Semitism, assimilation, and in-fighting combined. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks declared, “if we genuinely lack free will, our entire sense of what it is to be human will crumble into dust,” and Judaism will dissolve with it. Judaism matters because it provides a firm moral compass. But if we stop navigating that moral journey for ourselves, why keep the compass?

While previous generations grappled with how to keep Shabbat holy (or not), future generations can use an app that calibrates their calendar, ensuring physical and mental health is provided through adequate rest instead of lighting candles. Instead of join a minyan or havurah, their smartphone can provide a daily 15-minute meditative experience, personalized with elements from various philosophies and religions. Instead of attending a local federation event to consider where to give an end of year donation, a program can scan personal information to determine a user’s values and budget to create a personalized donation plan that can be transacted with a single swipe through a banking app. Each of these mundane instances exemplifies how Jewish decisions can be outsourced to artificial intelligence, rendering ourselves passive. If we form a habit of outsourcing decisions to algorithms, we are training ourselves to trust artificial intelligence over our own consciences. And if we lose confidence in making small decisions, how could we ever make the big ones like who to marry, where to live, or what political parties to support?

For millennia we’ve battled in the arena of ideas and choices; we feared defeat at the hands of other ideas, but we never imagined the audience would stop watching, abandoning their seats altogether. Before we cross that threshold, we must ask ourselves: How do we build a fence around free choice without shunning the many benefits of artificial intelligence? How do we ensure that future generations are vigilant about their choices and embrace the accompanying responsibility, both on a micro and macro level? Our future depends on our answer, and the future waits for no one.

Andrew Fretwell is a Media and Publishing executive at IBM, a former educator for Young Judaea and the Birthright Israel Foundation, and currently chairs Repair the World NYC’s Advisory Board.