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Real Technologies And The Jewish Problem

How will Jewish law handle the remarkable technology that are slowly but surely changing traditional life?
Illustrative photo of a young man reading from a Torah scroll (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a young man reading from a Torah scroll (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s fun to talk about the future. Technology predictions are rarely challenged, probably because it is too much fun to dream about them. Also, there is the reality that many tremendous advancements are going on as we speak, in the “basement” of companies like IBM, Microsoft, Apple and possibly your neighbor’s house. So, when someone tweets or WhatApps or LinkedIns about some crazy new device, it may already be in the testing phase.

The following article is a joy to read. Some of the technologies are already being tested, and some will soon be in regular use. Reading such an article really does make you believe that anything is possible. I’ve often said that after the moon landing of 1969, the word “impossible” was effectively wiped clean from the dictionary. People started talking about when technologies would happen, not “if”. I cannot even imagine the world that, G-d willing, my children’s children will be born into. By the time my grandchildren are adults, they truly will look at me as if I grew up in a cave, with a club and no cable.

I have mentioned this before, that in the remake of the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic “Total Recall”, phones were implanted under the skin and projected their image through the skin or onto an adjacent surface. Last year, an artist by the name of Anthony Antonellis used himself as a test case for having a chip implanted in his arm. You might wonder what an artist needs an embedded chip for. Well, for the same reason that anyone else would – for saving files and transferring them to other devices. Imagine having your entire library of important documents always available, independent of an Internet connection. Such chips can also be used to identify individuals, locate them and, for example, put an end to the issue of how to make sure that people always have a copy of their medical records with them.

Recently in a blog post, I spoke of bionics, which is the merging of technology and human tissue. Just in the last week, I read about a new technology to give prosthetics the ability to sense objects,i.e., digital touch. How much longer can it be until a prosthetic, almost indistinguishable from a human limb, becomes commonplace. Bionic eyes are also in various stages of development. To some extent, it is almost a race to see if technologies based on stem cells will succeed in regrowing lost tissues and organs, before we are able to emulate them with silicon.

Just a few days ago, I read of the first truly significant success with the growing of large quantities of pancreatic cells in mice. The pancreas is the organ inside of us [just under the diaphragm] that, amongst other things, produces insulin and is critical for regulating our blood sugar. Further animal and human studies will still take years. But we are very close to curing one form of diabetes. At the same time, a digital pancreas is being tested at Boston university. This device uses a sensor to monitor  blood sugar in people. For years, the technology for automatically injecting Insulin into a diabetic has existed. The idea  is to combine these two technologies into one device that could truly be called a bionic pancreas.

This, by the way, is the new approach in medical technology. And it has only been truly adopted in the last few years. The first step is to develop a sensor that can detect what ever is missing or is present in too high a quantity in our bodies. The next step is to develop a device that transmits this information to the appropriate person  and/or professional, and perhaps even takes steps to deal with the problem identified by the sensor. Ideally, all of this technology would be very small and would be totally implantable. This whole process is being applied to a wide range of medical conditions.

Imagine an alcoholic, who has an embedded chip that detects levels of alcohol in his or her blood. At the first sign of any blood alcohol, an embedded device could release a medication that causes nausea and vomiting when alcohol is present in the blood. In other words, it would create a hangover before the alcoholic individual had the chance to ingest a significant amount of alcohol. While the ideal situation would be to stop the ingestion altogether, this approach might still be successful in “retraining” the brain to suppress the urge to drink alcohol. You can imagine the same type of system being applied to various illicit drugs, such as cocaine  and  LSD.

Human tissue does not block radio waves [unless you are Wolverine or Colossus from the X-Men]. A British research team is working on pill-sized microprocessors that could transmit information from inside your body. There is no inherent reason why the transmission could not be in the form of an SMS that is sent to an emergency contact or physician. As such, a sensor that has just detected a problem in a patient could contact that patient’s doctor anywhere in the world. Perhaps the only caveat is that you might need to sign up for a lifelong plan for SMSes with your cell phone provider.

Bill Gates is still mostly known for creating Microsoft and becoming one of the wealthiest people in the world. It is truly inspiring to see how he is using his fortune to find solutions for a whole range of problems. He is supporting research to cure diseases like tuberculosis and malaria. He is also working to create economies in the developing world, in order to help individuals break out of poverty. Mr Gates is also supporting an MIT project that would provide remote controlled contraception via an external wireless controller device and an implanted depot of the appropriate hormones. For many women, especially in the developing world, contraception can be an issue of life and death. Once again, the same technology will most likely be applicable to many other conditions. There is significant spillover between many  technology projects. And it is all of us that gain from this.

Approximately 20 years ago, there was a movie called Johnny Mnemonic. The main character in this movie had a chip implanted in his brain that could be used for transferring data from one point to another. The idea of augmenting the human brain has been the stuff of science fiction for decades. A team at Brown University is working on a project called BrainGate which is intended to directly link the human brain to a computer for a whole range of reasons. The actual size of the implant would be like that described for many other uses, i.e. equivalent to the average medication pill. The mega-company Intel expects that this technology will be ready for practical use within the next 5 to 6 years.

If such a chip truly allows a person to be online 24/7 and have immediate access to everything on, say, Google, this will unquestionably change the world. What will it mean to study for an exam when you have all of the material at the tip of your tongue, the moment you think of the topic in question. Combined with other virtual presence technologies, brain to brain direct transfer might totally redefine the concept of a videoconference. A time period of 5 to 6 years is really not enough to prepare for all the implications of such a technology. I wouldn’t dare predict the significance of such an advance.

There is much more coming down the pipeline. Super smart and tiny computers will be injectable into a human and will form internal networks across the entire body. Such devices could act as both sensor and actor in dealing with various medical conditions. And of course, we will not have any sense of these device’s presence in ourselves, until we need something from them, and then we will experience a true merging of human and machine.

There is no question that there are psychological, emotional, philosophical and even religious connotations to these technologies. According to Jewish law, one may not operate a machine on the Sabbath. When the machine is a network of microscopic sensors, or contrarily a set of bionic limbs, will these technologies still be considered forbidden for use on the Sabbath? I am not too worried about such an issue, as Jewish law is actually  extremely innovative. But when a person literally can no longer participate in society without having been augmented by technology, will those who refuse this option literally have to move back into the woods?

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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