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In a World of AI, What Makes us Human?

Often when working with a group for professional development on artificial intelligence, I start by trying to get a shared definition of AI. I’ve pulled definitions from IBM, Britannica, and ChatGPT itself, and the common theme is an aspect of being human-like in its operations.

Which, then, at least for me, leads to the question of what “human-like” means and what, exactly, it means to be human and how, then, are humans differentiated from AI, both now and in the future.

As an overthinker, I spend more time on this train of thought than I probably should, so I was thrilled to get another perspective when I recently attended a program through the Denver Kollel, focused on this exact topic.

The presenter, Rabbi Schwab discussed the Godliness of man at the key differentiator. God gave humans a soul (literally, according to the Torah, the soul is God’s breath), and with that comes a moral compass and a heart (in Hebrew, lev). This lev gives the sense of humanity and a spiritual dimension. The key differentiator, then, is this connection and piece of God.

Rabbi Schwab also discussed how humans have a true sense of authenticity. Their empathy and intuition comes from within; it’s not mirrored or emulated. This piece of God, with which each person is born, serves as a core anchor to our humanity (and Godliness).

But what do we do with that?

Elon Musk has even gone on record, saying that AI has the potential to destroy humanity, and I’ve spoken with a few experts in the field about how, exactly, that is possible. It just doesn’t seem like a text generating website on my computer can destroy the world. Or can it?

Turns out that it goes back to that human aspect.

In the same way that AI isn’t going to take away jobs from humans (rather, it’s humans using AI who will be able to take those), so, too, it isn’t AI that is at risk of destroying humanity (it’s humans and how they choose to use AI).

It’s just as easy for ChatGPT, for example, to take the list of everything I have in my kitchen and give me suggestions to make my sore throat go away as it is for it to give me suggestions for something that would do harm.

The difference? What did the human ask it to do?

In a world of rising technology where it seems the computers can do everything better, faster, and cheaper, what is the place of man?

Our place is to go back to what makes us human, really embrace our souls and inherent spiritual self-worth. What we are comes from that, not from a function or a reaction. Our job is to use our lev leverage what is around us for good.

It does us no good to try to compete with machines. So we shouldn’t.

And we shouldn’t be teaching our students to do so either.

Rabbi Schwab also addressed how AI will and should impact education, and he emphasized that we, as educators, have a unique opportunity to rethink our role and what we are doing, regaining our focus as humans. As educators, the most important thing we can give our students is ourselves – role models who foster curiosity and a love of learning and create those “aha” moments. We should lean into developing life skills (you know, the skills we humans need to live a human life) like critical thinking, personal management, and communication. And as much as things have changed and will continue to change, so much stays the same. Ultimately, that student/teacher relationship at the core of education is about values, authenticity, empathy, and inspiration. We can cultivate awe and love in a way AI can’t. We can reach a soul in a way AI can’t. We can foster spirituality in a way AI can’t.

AI comes with both amazing opportunities and difficult challenges, Rabbi Schwab acknowledged. We don’t have the luxury to stop this “tidal wave,” as he calls it, so we need to be tooled in how to confront change and how to make it work for us. Rabbi Schwab brought a text from the Gemara that discusses the value of learning from a flawed scholar, likening it to eating from a fruit but throwing away the peel. Part of our role, as humans, is to develop and refine our own filters so that we can eat from the fruit, knowing how to separate it from the peel and how to properly dispose of that peel.

This world is neither good nor bad, Rabbi Schwab stated. Rather it is here for us to filter out the bad and harness the good. The world was created as a background for us, an environment in which we fulfill our purpose. As that world changes, it is our responsibility to use our filters and harness the potential around us and to educate our students as to how to do that for themselves.

In this specific case, how can we filter out the bad from AI and harness the good?

How can we use what makes us human – our God-given souls, moral compass, and true authenticity – to embrace our surroundings and use them to better fulfill our purpose?

How do we use AI to make us even more human?

During this time in the Jewish calendar, a time of reflection and intention, I encourage everyone to embrace your soul and your authenticity and celebrate your human-ness.

May this be a year of centering on our souls and strengthening our filters!

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