When technology says: “Hold on a second…”

Just think: you can now instantly know someone's name. Cool, huh? Not so fast.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

I was recently talking to a young friend, and we got around to discussing the topic of superpowers.

I asked him: “What superpower would you like to have?”

This was his response: “I would like to be able to look at someone, and instantly know who that person is — his or her name, all sorts of stuff. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

Yeah. Wouldn’t it?

Guess what?

That superpower is here.


Inventors have been working on a new technology that will be truly revolutionary — in ways that we have not even imagined. You will be able to put on a pair of glasses, look at someone, and (given the presence of Wifi), instantly know that person’s name — and, presumably, much more.

To quote the recent article in the New York Times:

Mr. Leyvand turned toward a man across the table from him. The smartphone’s camera lens — round, black, unblinking — hovered above Mr. Leyvand’s forehead like a Cyclops eye as it took in the face before it. Two seconds later, a robotic female voice declared, “Zach Howard.”

“That’s me,” confirmed Mr. Howard, a mechanical engineer.

An employee who saw the tech demonstration thought it was supposed to be a joke. But when the phone started correctly calling out names, he found it creepy, like something out of a dystopian movie.

This technology is already available through PimEyes, wherein “a snapshot of someone can be used to find other online photos where that face appears, potentially revealing a name, social media profiles or information a person would never want to be linked to publicly, such as risqué photos.”

Is facial recognition technology a good thing?

Yes, in some ways. For law enforcement, it would be a great boon — seeing a suspect at a crime scene, and knowing that person’s identity immediately. It could eliminate the need for passports, and other forms of identification. 

On the interpersonal level, it would mean that there would be no strangers. Enter a room, go to a party, go to a party — you can figure out the rest.

Or, on a deeper, more existential level: In a world where so many of us desperately want to be known, we would be known.

But, then, the cliche: “What if this falls into the wrong hands?” Totalitarian governments can use, and are already using this technology, to identify dissidents. And, while it might be good to live in a world without strangers, you would also gulp and wonder aloud: What ever happened to privacy?

So, here’s the real news.

The news is not the invention of this technology — as cool, or as frightening, as it might be.

The real news is that the developers blinked.

Again, from the Times:

What these start-ups had done wasn’t a technological breakthrough; it was an ethical one. Tech giants had developed the ability to recognize unknown people’s faces years earlier, but had chosen to hold the technology back, deciding that the most extreme version — putting a name to a stranger’s face — was too dangerous to make widely available…

As early as 2011, a Google engineer revealed he had been working on a tool to Google someone’s face and bring up other online photos of them. Months later, Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, said in an onstage interview that Google “built that technology, and we withheld it.”

“As far as I know, it’s the only technology that Google built and, after looking at it, we decided to stop,” Mr. Schmidt said.

“We decided to stop.”

I have long lamented that relatively few religious thinkers — and of them, even fewer Jewish thinkers — have thought critically about the implications of the new technology.

The major exception is my friend and colleague, Danny Schiff. In his book, “Judaism in a Digital Age: An Ancient Tradition Confronts a Transformative Era,” he writes:

What are the characteristics of this new digital age? Here is a brief sampling: In the space of one generation, a planet without personal computers, where virtually nobody had heard the word “Internet,” has been filled with sophisticated computing gadgets, all interconnected. A virtual environment that never existed before has become indispensable to government, businesses, organizations, and individuals. Mobile communications devices that can track positioning and connect universally—previously the stuff of science fiction—have become ubiquitous. The Internet has extensively erased the tyrannies of time and distance, leading to remote work and long-distance collaborations that were once fantasies. A worldwide ethos of sharing, collaborating, and crowdsourcing has produced remark- able leaps forward. Phones and social media have reshaped human interactions, politics, relationships, families, and sexuality. Algorithms have been deployed that invisibly mold human choices. Privacy has largely evaporated [my emphasis — JKS] Authority structures have been challenged. And much more. In short, human existence has been remade with breathtaking speed…

If technological growth is increasing exponentially, then the number of novel ethical dilemmas and uncertainties that will arise from these advances will similarly rocket higher.

The ramifications for Judaism are vast. Given that Judaism is a system that calls upon Jews to live in a way that is exemplary, Judaism will soon confront a host of issues that have not previously been central to the Jewish agenda…

I have mused on the fact that every wild, futuristic technology that we saw in the cartoon series “The Jetsons” — people talking on screens, which became Facetime and Zoom meetings; people taking fitness classes on a screen, which became online classes; doctors diagnosing illness via a screen, which became telehealth — are all available.

Moreover, we have long sensed that technology has developed with a speed that has far outstripped our abilities to engage in the ethical implications of its growth.

We have long sensed that he Internet has assumed the attributes that traditional religion once ascribed to God: all-knowing, omniscient, and ubiquitous — and yet, it completely lacks God’s “better” attributes — compassion, and the ability to forgive.

So, what happened here — with Eric Schmidt saying: “We decided to stop”?

The world of technology grew a conscience.

As in: “For the sin that we have committed — or that we might be about to commit…”

This is huge. In fact, this might be one of the most significant breakthroughs in the cyber world.

Not for what it can do; but for what it might not want to do.

Will this technology become widely available? Yes? When? Who knows?

But, for the moment, all you need to know is that technology confronted a perceived need or desire; confronted a perceived market; and nevertheless, said to itself and to the world: “Wait a minute. Let’s slow down here. Let’s think about this.”

It all reminds me of the classic Jewish story of the eastern European Jews in the late 1800s who consulted their rabbi about the technological changes that they were experiencing.

“Rabbi, is the telegraph permitted?” “Yes, because it teaches us that every word is counted.”

“Rabbi, is the telephone permitted? “Yes, because it teaches us that what we say here is heard there.”

“Rabbi, is the train permitted?” “Yes, because it teaches us that in one minute, you can miss everything.”

Technology teaches, and more than that — technology learns.

Even more deeply than the scientists might have imagined.

Shabbat shalom; may you be inscribed in the book of life; and for those who fast on Yom Kippur, a meaningful fast.

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!