Worries are increasing around the world that various forms of artificial intelligence (AI) will render vast swaths of humanity unemployed. As Jews start the annual Bible cycle reading during the holiday of Simkhat Torah with the first part of Breishit (Genesis) – and the full parsha a week later – we are offered a clue as to where we might be headed, and why.
The metaphorical story is familiar to all. Despite God’s admonition against eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve consume the fruit (not an “apple”), and as punishment are banished from the Garden of Eden to the outside world. The real punishment in this is that humankind would henceforth have to work hard to survive (“by the sweat of your brow…”), as opposed to the idyllic world in the Garden where all sustenance was ripe for simply picking.
So, humankind started on the road of history – of our own making. Full of struggle – primarily economic, but involving technology and culture, and (unfortunately due to both), warfare. Nevertheless, despite huge ups and downs, the historical record is one of long-term advancement: more people are healthier, have better lives, and live far longer.
How and why did we succeed? The answer is there from the start: by ingesting (perhaps physically; certainly figuratively) from the Tree of Knowledge, we have strived, quite successfully, to increase our knowledge – that in turn was put to use in developing science, technology, and other social “tools” for increased survival and improved lifestyle. And a major consequence of this was a very significant reduction in the amount of time we must spend on “work.” From the 14-hour workday (at least six days a week) that was humanity’s lot from time immemorial until the late 19th century, we are now down (in the world’s advanced countries) to 7 or 8-hour workdays, only five days a week (some countries have started to experiment with four-day work weeks), and counting down.
To put it another way: human history is one long and gradually successful attempt to return us back to the “Garden of Eden,” a world in which we don’t have to work to live. Is this a second transgression against God’s will? The verse is somewhat ambiguous on the question as to whether this punishment is “forever” for humanity as a whole, or merely for Adam and Eve, the individuals who sinned: (Genesis 3, 19) “In the sweat of your brow will you eat bread, until you return unto the ground; for out of it were you taken; for dust you are, and unto dust shall you return.” The words “Mankind” or “Forever” do not appear here. And as Judaism (at least) does not accept the concept of “Original Sin” (i.e., that we continue to carry the sin of our forebears), it is not a stretch to argue that this was a punishment of Adam and Eve exclusively. Any attempt by the human race to return to a life of leisure (no need to work), does not undermine God’s plan.
AI is the next tool along this path, and together with robotics has the potential to banish human work altogether – finally returning us to a future “Garden of Eden.” What we as humans will do in such an “idyllic” world is another matter, not without its serious challenges and questions. But it need not be intrinsically “bad” or “wrong” if we learn how to adapt to our new “lifestyle.”
Moreover, this is not the whole story. Readers of Genesis tend to overlook the fact that there were two trees: Knowledge and also Life. The biblical commentators point out that had Adam & Eve not been evicted from the Garden of Eden, they would have remained immortal. Unsurprisingly, here too humanity has made strides in that direction. Although we are still far from extending our lifespan well beyond a century, genetic engineering holds the promise of eventually doing just that. After all, if we managed to almost double our lifespan in the past century alone – with relatively “primitive” medical tools – it is not far-fetched to imagine far more sophisticated medical technologies further increasing lifespans significantly, and perhaps even moving us close to “immortal.” Here too, the ethical challenges and social questions are fraught with uncertainties, but the attempt in and of itself cannot be considered “wrong.”
In sum, Genesis represents not only the beginning of human history; it holds within it the “promise” of “The End of History” as well. The Bible’s origin story does not merely lay the foundation of human endeavor but might well also constitute the road map for where we are headed.