The Last Word

Forward Magazine - - Contents - BY DAN FRIED­MAN Dan Fried­man is the ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the For­ward. Fol­low him on Twit­ter, @dan­fried­manme

Dan Fried­man On Ro­bots

The wak­ing fan­tasy of the ages is that some ex­ter­nal force will take care of all our needs. And, for those who rightly es­chew slav­ery in all its forms, that has meant hop­ing for a sci­en­tific in­ven­tion or dream­ing of some mag­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion. But there’s a catch. As a writer, I yearn for an au­to­matic ma­chine — like the 1932 writ­ing doll on this page — that can be wound up to craft a per­fect story. At the same time that I would be lib­er­ated from my la­bor, though, I would be ren­dered ob­so­lete.

As we de­velop the power and so­phis­ti­ca­tion of com­put­ers they will be able to learn ever more quickly from their mis­takes. As they do so, their ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence im­proves at an in­creas­ing rate un­til at some point — the mo­ment called the sin­gu­lar­ity — ex­po­nen­tial tech­no­log­i­cal growth from the ma­chines, will re­sult in pro­found changes to Earth’s civ­i­liza­tion. Whether those changes help or hurt hu­man life on Earth de­pends on the al­go­rithms at the cen­ter of the AI.

From the awak­en­ing of the golem in me­dieval Prague to the im­mi­nent sin­gu­lar­ity aris­ing from ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence has been at the heart of imag­in­ing that ar­ti­fi­cial life. From Kab­bal­ist Rabbi Loew pro­tect­ing his com­mu­nity by in­vest­ing mud with life to fu­tur­ist Ray Kurzweil (among many other things) teach­ing Google’s Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence to learn bet­ter, there are crit­i­cal Jewish strands in the DNA of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence.

Cur­rently we are strug­gling with the tran­si­tion from un­der­stand­ing that ma­chines per­form heavy la­bor (in fac­to­ries, in mines) to un­der­stand­ing that they are in­tel­li­gently an­swer­ing our emailed ques­tions, writ­ing ag­gre­gated news sto­ries, mak­ing in­vest­ments and even sug­gest­ing re­sponses to the emails in our gmail in­box.

In 1928, the idea of liv­ing ma­chines was cur­rent. Max Ga­bel’s provoca­tive pro­duc­tion of “Der

Golem” was fresh in peo­ple’s minds, K. Čapek’s 1920 play “R.U.R.” (“Ros­sum’s Univer­sal Ro­bots”) had just coined that word, and at West­ing­house, Roy J. Wens­ley had just built Her­bert Televox, a ma­chine that could re­spond to tele­phoned in­struc­tions.

Čapek was not fea­tured promi­nently in the pages of the Forverts but Ga­bel, es­pe­cially, and Wens­ley were.

The word “ro­bot” comes from the Czech word for forced la­bor. But the three words the Forverts used, show the strug­gle to cat­e­go­rize these new de­vices. We re­ferred to them all as “goylem” as we might use the word “an­droid” today to re­fer to an an­thro­po­mor­phic ma­chine. We also used “oy­tomat” (maybe from the Rus­sian “av­tomat”) mean­ing au­tom­a­ton. And, most pro­gres­sively — in a way that Mr. Data from ‘Star Trek’ would ap­prove — we called Televox a “me­chan­i­cal man” (dis­tinct from a “liv­ing man”).

If we add in the term “ro­bot” we run, et­y­mo­log­i­cally, the gamut of terms: from “ro­bots” as forced la­bor­ers to “me­chan­i­cal men” as work­ers par­al­lel to their liv­ing broth­ers. In the mid­dle lie the ap­prov­ing but anx­i­ety-rid­den terms — goylem (a de­fender who might run amok) and av­tomat (an in­de­pen­dent be­ing who, again, is not un­der con­trol). We are still liv­ing in the shadow of these terms.

Over the past cen­tury we still haven’t quite worked out how to think about the in­tel­li­gent ma­chines we live with. Over the next few years, though, that prob­lem will pale into in­signif­i­cance next to the ques­tion of what they think of us.

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