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Will Chat GPT rot our brains?

In which I test drive Chat GPT. So you don't have to.

OpenAI logo. Courtesy image

(RNS) — Full disclosure: I wrote this blog. Me. Jeff Salkin. Not a bot. Not an app.

Me. A real, live human being who possesses both a mind and, presumably, a soul.

I am glad I got that out of the way.

Because this is a real, live issue — the debut of Chat GPT, Elon Musk’s new chatbot through Open AI. This technology will do many things, but most important for our purposes, it will write a full-fledged essay for you on any topic of your choosing. In a nano-second, Open AI takes your question, scans the internet for answers and compiles a coherent statement out of fragments of data.

Cool, huh?

Let’s see how cool it is, actually.

Let’s take this baby out for a test spin. I registered for the program and then typed in a series of questions.

I asked: “What will the future of Reform Judaism look like?”

It answered: “It’s difficult to say exactly what the future of Reform Judaism will look like, as it will depend on a variety of factors, including changes within the Jewish community, global political and social developments, and the actions and decisions of Reform Jewish leaders and individuals. However, it’s likely that Reform Judaism will continue to evolve and adapt to the changing needs and desires of its members, while staying true to its core values of inclusion, equality, and social justice. As Reform Judaism is one of the largest and most progressive branches of Judaism, it will likely continue to play a major role in shaping the future of the Jewish faith.”

My evaluation: I could have gotten that response at a movement convention, except it would have been in the presence of some 4,000 people.

I do not quibble at its short list of core values — inclusion, equality and social justice — but I would have preferred to know something about my movement’s mission as a religious movement: God, Torah, theology, ritual, etc.

I asked: “Will antisemitism continue to be a problem in America?”

It answered: “It’s difficult to predict the future, but it’s possible that antisemitism will continue to be a problem in America. Antisemitism, like all forms of bigotry and hatred, stems from ignorance and fear, and can be fueled by political, social, and economic factors. While there have been efforts to combat antisemitism and other forms of discrimination, it’s important for individuals and communities to continue to speak out against hatred and prejudice in all its forms. By working together and standing up for each other, we can create a more inclusive and compassionate society.”

My evaluation: Of course, it’s difficult to predict the future, but this is what your “job” is, you little bot. Predict the future. Or is that in the next version? “It’s possible that antisemitism will continue to be a problem in America.” Gee, thanks. I suppose that means it is possible that it won’t be. Sheesh.

Next time I ask this question, remind me to ask Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL or Deborah Lipstadt. I like the call for vigilance and activism, although you would have figured that out on your own. “Really? We need to be vigilant? As a Jewish leader, let me thank you, Chat GPT, for having our backs.”

I asked: “How can Jews and Muslims create an atmosphere of mutual respect?”

It answered: “One of the key ways that Jews and Muslims can create an atmosphere of mutual respect is by getting to know one another and learning about each other’s beliefs, practices, and cultures. This can be done through interfaith dialogue and engagement, where individuals from different faith backgrounds come together to learn from and about one another in a respectful and open-minded way. By engaging in these kinds of conversations and activities, Jews and Muslims can build bridges of understanding and appreciation, and work together to promote peace and harmony in their communities and beyond. Additionally, it’s important for individuals from both faith traditions to speak out against bigotry and hatred, and to support one another in the face of discrimination or persecution.”

My evaluation: This was a fairly obvious answer — sort of like the answer to the antisemitism question. If you listen carefully, you can hear “Kumbaya” in the background. There might even be a new app for that.

These were all intellectual questions.

Now, let’s take this sucker out for a more rigorous workout.

Let’s ask it a “spiritual” question — the kind of pastoral question I might get from a patient in hospice. Like …

I asked: “Rabbi, what happens to me when I die?”

It answered: “Different religious and philosophical traditions have different beliefs about what happens to an individual after they die. Some believe in an afterlife, where the soul is either rewarded or punished for their actions in life. Others believe in reincarnation, where the soul is reborn into a new body. Still others believe that death is the end of an individual’s consciousness, and that there is no afterlife. As a large language model trained by OpenAI, I don’t have personal beliefs or experiences, so I cannot provide a definitive answer to this question. It’s up to each individual to decide what they believe happens after death based on their own personal beliefs and experiences.”

My evaluation: My clergy colleagues can all breathe more easily — your jobs are safe. This answer just demonstrated why Chat GPT might be a good way to get an intellectual answer to an intellectual question, but for those deeper, “keep you up in the middle of the night” questions, not so much. 

First of all, “Rabbi” should have been an obvious give away. It should have been a clue to formulating a response. The questioner already knows “different religious and philosophical traditions have different beliefs.” Of course, every individual can decide what they believe. Isn’t that part of the problem — that people don’t want to identify or name their beliefs on something as fragile and existential as this weighty question?

But, here is what the program got right. “As a large language model trained by OpenAI, I don’t have personal beliefs or experiences.” The bot is a cipher.

Bots have the entire internet at their fingertips, but they don’t have lives, stories, or, of course, souls. Chat GPT is like the golem of Jewish mystical lore, the soulless creature that Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague created in the 1500s.

“Write me a short story about a man who falls in love, and loses his love, and then finds his love again.” In a nano-second, some hidden Hemingway produces it for you.

But, it won’t be Hemingway, because it will not have passed through the guts of Hemingway.

Instead, what will we get?  A culture of plagiarism, even more effective than the cut-and-paste internet research culture we already have. Who wrote that college admissions essay? (Coming soon, I am sure: Tell the bot your work history, and let it write your resume for you.)

By contrast, Judaism is a footnote culture. (That also happens to be one of the best movies about Jewish intellectual life — “Footnote” by Joseph Cedar.) The ancient sages teach: “Whoever quotes something in the name of the person who said it — b’shem omro — brings redemption to the world.” It is a mitzvah to cite your sources.

What happens when that is no longer possible, and/or passe?

Finally, what has been missing from technology, all along, is an inner critique of technology.

Precious few Jews have written about it. The major exception is Micah Goodman, in the pages of “Sources Journal,” published by the Shalom Hartman Institute:

…I turned to the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communications theorist who famously taught that “the medium is the message.” Technology can enrich our lives and fill it with things that were not there before. But it can also impoverish us and take things away from us. In his book Understanding Media, McLuhan explained the difference between what technology gives and what it takes away. What it gives us is bright and shiny, but what it takes away is obscure and practically invisible. It gives quickly but takes slowly. Its advantages are therefore seen and spoken about, while its disadvantages are mostly unseen and much less spoken about. This asymmetry creates the illusion that technology is an unmitigated bonus for humanity. But in practice, it always comes at a price.

“It always comes at a price.”

This is what it will cost us: our thinking; our critical faculties; our intellectual curiosity; our ability to research; our ability to read; our desire to create great literature.

The Jews trace their story back to Abraham, who shattered his father’s idols. We can do more and we can do better.

I invite all religious thinkers to dig down and lean in and ask themselves the question: Is this what God wants of us? Is this what it means to be made in the divine image?

Now, if I asked that question of Chat GPT … ?

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