Since the OpenAI ChatGPT program was launched in the fall, it has gone viral, with even a Long Island rabbi using it to “plagiarize” a sermon. This week’s clergy discuss the religious implications of the technology, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to generate text after a user enters a prompt.
RABBI IRA EBBIN
Congregation Ohav Sholom, Merrick
I’ll begin with an ancient answer to a modern question. Our tradition has always embraced discovery and innovation from our first mandate to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land and conquer it (Genesis 1:28).” Those words give humans the permission and impetus for technological advancement. Creativity and ingenuity are the hallmarks of emulating and imitating God. Yet, to quote “Spider-Man,” “With great power comes great responsibility.” The Tower of Babel story tells of humans using the latest technology — bricks and mortar — in an attempt to battle God (Genesis 11:1-9). So enamored were they with their new high-tech breakthrough, according to rabbinic tradition, that when a brick would fall and break, the workers would stop and cry, yet when one of the workers would fall and die during the tower’s construction, they wouldn’t even stop working. We may be connected to more people than our ancestors could have ever fathomed, yet we are currently undergoing an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. Artificial intelligence should be utilized to help improve how we do things in this world, including how we study and how we worship. Yet, the human component, our need to connect to and feel connected to others, can never be replaced.
THE REV. WILLIAM MCBRIDE
Religious director, Interfaith Community Religious Education Program, Brookville Multifaith Campus, Glen Head
When faced with technology questions, I rely on the wisdom of my two brothers, Joe and Tom. Joe is a computer programmer who founded a company with the mission to “Humanize as you Computerize.” Concerning artificial intelligence and chatbots, Joe would ask, “Is it humanizing?”
Tom was a developmental disabilities specialist with great faith in the genius of modern inventions to create the least restrictive environment for all people. Tom would challenge us to wonder how technological development can empower human development. (In full disclosure, out of convenience, I went to ChatGPT for a response, but it was down, proving to not be as reliable as the human spirit.)
In the late 1800s, a rabbi was challenged on the value of modern inventions. The disciples inquired, “How can the telegraph help us?” The rabbi responded, “It teaches us that every word is counted and measured. And the telephone teaches us that what is spoken here is heard there.” As a leader of faith today, inspired by the faith and patience of computer programmers and developmental disability specialists, I might respond to the question, “How can AI and chatbots help us?” by saying, “They teach us to take things one step at a time.”
THE REV. EARL Y. THORPE JR.
Pastor, Church-in-the-Garden, Garden City
The dialectic of help or hindrance sums up how the various mediums humans interact with can influence our faith formation and how it manifests in our lives. A brilliant vista gazed upon by a person can provoke a deep awareness of our connection to a presence greater than ourselves. Similarly, contemplating a photographic or artist’s rendering of that vista can elicit the same faith-inspiring cognizance that ultimately leads one to examine their faith. The medium changed, yet the resulting inspiration remained.
This outcome suggests that artificial intelligence and other technologies can help our faith formation. Like any medium, AI can hinder a person’s faith. AI is borne out of the information given to it by humans and combines the data to create something new. The caution and challenge become what one feeds AI. Add racism, xenophobia and sexism, the output will be harmful theology and the continuance of faith-hindering content. This is no different from the late-night televangelists and religious con artists that prey on the masses via social media and other venues. Faith communities must be diligent in our discernment, regardless of the medium, constantly questioning the source, and be willing to test our faith.