June 12th, 2014
08:42 PM ET
Opinion by Mark Goldfeder, special to CNN
(CNN) - To the team of researchers, Eugene Goostman seemed like a nice Jewish boy from Odessa, Ukraine.
In fact, he was a computer.
In convincing some of the researchers that Goostman was real, the computer program became the first to pass the Turing Test for artificial intelligence.
The Turing Test, named for British mathematician Alan Turing, is often thought of as the benchmark test for true machine intelligence. Since 1950, thousands of scientific teams have tried to create something capable of passing, but none has succeeded.
That is, until Saturday – and, appropriately for the Goostman advance, our brave new world can learn a bit from Jewish history.
As we start to think about whether to grant human-like beings special status, Judaism’s highly developed ethical sense, with its willing over-inclusiveness, is not a bad model to follow.
What makes this so fascinating is that long ago Judaism came up with a test for humanity that was quite similar to the Turing Test.
Jewish law ascribes to and develops several “descriptive” tests for humanity - for instance "born of woman" (that is, a biological test).
But it also recognizes the limitations of letting a technicality be the only definition of moral personhood.
If there was a creature that looked human, and acted human, but was somehow not born of woman, Jewish law would not feel comfortable denying its basic human rights.
And so the Jerusalem Talmud developed a secondary test for humanity, a contextual/functional test.
In the fourth century collection of teachings, rabbis argue that if something looks human and acts human enough that when interacting with it we are not sure, the creature should be considered a person, at least for some things.
Having human features is important under Jewish law because Judaism believes that man is created in the image of God.
But what exactly does it mean to act human?
Many of the early biblical commentators say that what separates man from animals is the ability to speak - not only to communicate but also to express some level of moral intelligence.
While the early rabbis obviously didn’t have bots or computer programs, they did deal with creatures that were human-ish, if not human.
Famously, the rabbis give partial human status to something called a yadua. While the rabbinic descriptions are terse, the creature seems something like Bigfoot; a giant man-like animal usually spotted in the field.
Maimonides, in describing these creatures, notes that their speech is similar to humans, but is unintelligible.
The famous Jewish scholar refers to the creatures in his commentary as monkeys. But he doesn't dispute the Talmudic teaching that in some cases yadua can be considered persons.
After all, so the argument goes, the yadua looks (somewhat) like a human, and exhibits a level of intelligence that makes it seem, in some ways human.
Therefore it deserves to be treated like a human for some things, even though it fails the biological test of being born of a woman.
Simply put: The rule is that if something looks and acts human in a particular context, to the point that it seems like a person, do not start poking it to see if it bleeds. Just go ahead and treat it like a person.
Where then, does that leave computers, or more specifically, human-like robots?
What if Eugene Goostman had been put into a life-like robotic body that had some human features?
The golem in Jewish lore is typically depicted as a man-shaped creature made of clay, imbued with a sense of life by means of a specific series of letters programmed into it by a specialist.
It is quite similar, in fact, to the robot: a man-shaped creature made of metal, imbued with a sense of life by means of a very specific series of numbers programmed into it by a specialist.
Interestingly, the term “robot” (from the Czech word “robota” meaning “drudgery” or “hard work”) was invented by the Czech novelist and playwright Karel Capek. Capek lived in Prague, and was well acquainted with the well-known legend of the Golem of Prague.
Golems are usually associated with kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), but not always.
Lest you think that golems are not a good analogy for robots because of a special supernatural status, some influential Jewish scholars claim that the most famous golem was created by natural science and was not magic at all.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin tells the story of how one rabbi created an artificial man and sent him to a colleague.
“Rava created a man and sent him to Rabbi Zeira. The rabbi spoke to the man but he did not answer. Then he (Zeira) said: "You are from my colleagues. Return to your dust.”
Why was Zeira allowed to dismantle Rava's golem, i.e. to return it to its dust? Why was this not considered murder?
Because he talked to it, and it could not answer. That is, it could not pass for human.
Which leaves open the possibility that another, better, golem, perhaps a 13-year-old boy from Odessa, given the proper outfit, might have fared better.
Rabbi Mark Goldfeder is senior lecturer at Emory Law School and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. He is the author of a forthcoming book on Robots in the Law. The views expressed in this column belong to Goldfeder.
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