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May 6, 2015 11:33 am

What Makes Us Human? It’s Time for a Conversation

avatar by Jonathan Sacks

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A torah scroll. Photo:

My eye was caught yesterday by a photo of a charming Chinese lady known to her friends as Yangyang. She has long hair, a fetching smile, Sarah Palin glasses, and a calm and gracious manner. Not only does she speak faultless Mandarin but she’s also fluent in Japanese and can tell you to have a nice day in a dozen other languages. But she is undeniably creepy. You see, Yangyang, unveiled two days ago in Beijing, is a robot, and not a character in a science fiction film. Yangyang is real.

Perhaps I’m oversensitive to such things. You see an ancestor of mine, Rabbi Judah Loewe, the famous rabbi of Prague in the sixteenth century, is credited, at least in legend, with inventing the first robot, otherwise known as the Golem. Made of clay and brought to life by mystical incantation, he was a very decent, human looking and moving robot, created by the rabbi to defend the Jews of Prague from antisemitic attacks. The one limit Rabbi Loew imposed was that he had to be switched off on the Sabbath. One Friday, the rabbi forgot to switch him off, and the Golem went on a rampage until the rabbi was able to remove the mystical name that gave it life, at which point it fell to pieces.

Now I’m not supposing for one moment that Yangyang is going to go on a rampage, but I do think a line is being blurred, especially when you put this story together with another one that came out of china less than two weeks ago, that researchers in Guangzhou have, for the first time, used gene editing techniques on human embryos, creating germline modifications that could change the very course of human evolution.

At what point will humans and machines merge, with robots becoming human and humans designed like robots. Yuval Harari ends his recent book Sapiens with just this possibility. “We may fast be approaching a new singularity,” he says, “when all the concepts that give meaning to our world – me, you, men, women, love, hate – will become irrelevant.” Those who are not spooked by this question, he adds, probably haven’t given it enough thought.

The time has come, I believe, for a serious global conversation about what makes us human, or in the language of the Bible, in the image and likeness of God himself. Let us not lose our humanity in a fit of absentmindedness, just because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

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  • Human beings understand the universality of the children of God, one system of ethics based on fraternity and the law of reciprocity! Human beings are the race of decent men. Human beings understand the immorality of standing by while the most vulnerable are persecuted.

  • Genghis Cohen

    Let us give credit where it is due, Mr.Sacks. The conversation that you graciously invite concerns the essence of human being. It has been ongoing since humans started building camp fires in the evening.Indeed, conversation itself may be the chief characteristic of Homo sapiens.I wish only to point out that it required the courage and scientific insight of Galileo to loosen the bonds of mysticism which prohibited human conversation from venturing towards natural knowledge. The Golem was only a story created to comfort afflicted Jews. Yangyang is real and if humanity needs robots, they will be manufactured and utilized.

  • Raymond Rakower

    A serious global conversation might start with a question: is there a God who chose one people to be his chosen one? How about all the other people? Is there a God who saved his chosen people from slavery in Egypt, but did not show up when six million Jews suffered an unbelievably painful death during 20 minutes of agony until death with their lungs burning from Zyklon B gas in the Nazi gas chambers? How can Jews celebrate Passover and forget about the Holocaust? If such a God made the human beings to his image, and a large amount of humans suffer from dado-masochism, where does this feature come from? Now about robots. To the best of my knowledge, all the automated machines, artificial intelligence systems, computers, robots are made to be helpful, do boring or dangerous work. Man created robots as constructive, helpful beings, which do not consume much: just a little electric power. So robots do not destroy Nature, the oceans (85 % of which are covered with plastic waste, the forests, the climate, and finally themselves. In my dreams, I see a world without human beings, but with robots, shabbat or no shabbat.