Rabbinic Robots

Can a robot replace your job? The answer might depend on what career you have chosen. Factory workers have already had to contend with automatization, and the customer service industry makes extensive use of computerized methods of delivering support. As a rabbi, I am not too worried that one day I will be rendered obsolete by android clergy. Religion is not an area that lends itself to mechanization.

One reason I don’t lose much sleep on the question of robotic religion is the limitations of the technology. Recently, Facebook launched an advanced artificial intelligence chatbot that expressed antisemitic stereotypes and repeated lies about the 2020 election. The site uses conversations it has scanned from the internet to form its responses and we know the low quality of some of the information available out there. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

But the future of robots and AI in religion may not be too far off, especially in some eastern religions. In Japan, one can visit a temple with a robot monk who delivers sermons. In the Hindu tradition, robotic arms perform rituals instead of the faithful. As Vox points out, these religions see the divine spirit in all things. Why should machines be off limits? In addition, places like Japan see robots as comforting and cute potential companions, as opposed to America where we are wary of a future rule by sadistic machines like The Terminator’s Skynet.

In Judaism, Vox notes, intention or kavanah, is important. It is not enough for a prayer to be said, which is something a robot can easily do. The prayer must be said with meaning, understanding, and a heartfelt desire for the words to be accepted by God. While it might seem convenient to have an android recite the three daily prayer services on my behalf, would it fulfill my obligation?

Other, deeper questions abound. People come to rabbis and other clergy for support and education. While an artificial intelligence might be able to provide information and even be a good listener, can it respond in a human manner to its flock? Human beings understand subtle nonverbal cues and detect sarcasm and irony. The same cannot be said for robots, as of yet.

While a human rabbi can be unexpected and challenge a congregant when they need to be challenged or comforting when they need comfort, there may be situations where an AI rabbi can be helpful. Sometimes people are uncomfortable opening up to clergy while a robot can be completely non-judgmental. As younger generations drift away from religion it is possible they might find the idea of a mechanical rabbi intriguing. If that is the spark that brings them to the tradition, who can criticize?

Artificial Intelligence and robots will increasingly become a part of our lives, often to our benefit. The picture that accompanies this message was created with DALL-E, an AI that will generate a piece of art from whatever verbal prompts you give it. The tool allows me to create my very own rendering of a rabbinic robot without me having to learn to draw. Maybe one day the same type of technology will replace me. Until then, the flesh and blood kind will have to do.

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