Artificial Intelligence, Talmud, and Sharia: a post which will be of interest to a fairly specific set of geeks.

My threads often turn into lengthy discussions of how Jewish law intersects with various things. Kashrut and cannibalism seem to come up as a pair weirdly often, which may say something about my readers. But now I'm pondering a question about AI and the Islamic prohibition on statues.

Question: Is work on the strong AI problem – making a human-like intelligence – forbidden or encouraged under various religious laws?

In Islam, the dominant question seems to come from the rules about making images. These may seem to be irrelevant, since the word "statue" appears only twice in the Qur'an:

021.051-052: “And We verily gave Abraham of old his proper course, and We were aware of him, When he said to his father and his folk: What are these statues to which ye pay devotion?"

034.013: “[The jinn] made for [Solomon] what he willed: synagogues and statues, basins like wells and boilers built into the ground. Give thanks, O House of David! Few of My bondmen are thankful!"

The contrast between these two – that statues are bad in one context, but sanctioned by both God and a prophet in another – is usually resolved by saying that the key difference is in whether one intends to worship them, with that being the thing which is forbidden. (Others say: because the law changed between the time of Abraham and Solomon. But then why would it change back afterwards? See for a good overview)

However, there are many hadith which are more strongly against statuary in all its forms, in a sense "making a fence around the Qur'an." (If you don't mind mixing your religious metaphors) The most commonly-referenced hadith on the subject is from al-Bukhari, who quotes al-Nawawi as quoting Sayid ibn al-Hasan:

"I was with ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) when a man came to him and said, O ibn Abbas, I am a man who lives by what his hands make, and I make these images. Ibn Abbas said: I will only tell you what I heard the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) say. I heard him say: “Whoever makes an image, Allah will punish him until he breathes life into it, and he will never be able to do that.” The man became very upset and his face turned pale, so [Ibn Abbas] said to him, Woe to you! If you insist on making images, then make images of these trees and everything that does not have a soul." (Emphasis mine)

This ties into the question of AI fairly naturally. If you can breathe life into something, does that make it more or less haram? If it is only a semblance of life, one would suspect that it is more so, because false life would only encourage people to worship it. And if we could not tell false life from real life, we would be all the more tempted to treat it as real, and with that same respect. In the words of al-Araaf 7:11, "And surely, We created you (your father Adam) and then gave you shape (the noble shape of a human being); then We told the angels, ‘Prostrate yourselves to Adam.'"

So based on this, I suspect that Islamic law would regard research into strong AI as being haram.

However, contrast Jewish approaches to the same question. Judaism wrestles with the question of artificial life in its later literature, such as stories of golems. Here, particularly holy rabbis are given the power (by God) to create something with a semblance of life by inscribing certain words upon clay. The choice of clay is a deliberate parallel to the creation of Adam, but what is notable about golems is their inability to speak. That is, they lack the same faculty which allows their own creation; they are sterile, unable to reproduce further. The ability of speech is also tied to the idea of three layers of the soul: the nefesh (the "animal soul," giving basic animation), the ru'ach (the mind), and the neshamah (the divine soul, giving contact with God): the rabbis are only given the power to create things with a nefesh, not things with a neshamah.

The Jewish suggestion would be that no creature could create a thing with a neshamah, that being exclusively the divine province, but would also note that a creature could create a shell into which God places a neshamah – that being precisely what we do when having children. So there is nothing which fundamentally bars the possibility of research in AI and robotics leading even to a fully living creature. And just as Islam would suggest that people might misinterpret a partially living creature as living, Judaism would urge us to "place a fence around the Torah" by doing so as well: that to mistreat an artificial intelligence which is alive is such a sin that it is always better to err on the side of not doing so.

Its answer to the question posed naturally by the hadith – whether this semblance of life would cause people to err by worshiping it – would be that if you are worshiping anything but God, you are doing it wrong, and that is a sin in its own right.

This is a line of interpretation which I suspect wouldn't come up as naturally in most discussions of Sharia, simply because the rather vocal opinions of hadith would easily dominate the conversation, but I think is very consistent with Islam: in particular, it follows Qur'anic answer very closely. You may make any beautiful thing that you like, but you shouldn't worship it.

So if I would summarize my best estimate of the two answers:

In Judaism, it is permitted to make things with the semblance of life, and this semblance may be arbitrarily good, but true life will only be possible if God grants the thing created a complete soul, which is entirely subject to divine discretion. One should not worship anything of which it is possible to make an image in the first place. If one has made something of whose life one is uncertain, one would sin greatly by mistreating it, and so one should err on the side of assuming it is a person.

In Islam, hadith would say that one would sin at least as greatly by treating it as a person ("prostrating oneself before it," as the angels did to Adam), and since the risk of both this and of the opposite sin are so great, one should refrain from making anything with the semblance of life at all.

As will probably surprise nobody, I incline towards the Jewish (and Qur'anic) view of this, and would hold that treating something as human and prostrating oneself before it are not the same thing at all.

While this is applicable to artificial intelligence, its applicability to broader questions of "who is a person" are quite interesting to me as well. This is part of why science fiction can be so interesting.
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