Saturday, May 11, 2019

What the Torah Can Teach Us About Morality in a World of Omnipresent Artificial Intelligence

Note: Gave this dvar torah (sermon) on May 11, 2019.

Parsha: Kedoshim

There are 300,000 children in America afflicted with a horrible, incurable disease known as pediatric arthritis.  There are 7 types of pediatric arthritis, each with a different treatment plan.  The challenge for doctors is to figure out which type the child has.

The traditional method requires a systematic effort to test for type 1, then 2, and so on. It was time consuming, expensive, and worst of all, the kid is in pain the whole time.

Today, a new type of artificial intelligence can tell doctors which type of arthritis a child has based on which joints are in pain in his or her body at a given time.  It cuts time, cost, and pain.

At the same time, there are now AI-based facial applications in China that can recognize 3 billion faces per second.

So, and I am not making this up, if you decide you want to jaywalk, your face will be identified when you do and a message about your anti-social behavior will get sent to your family members, your boss, the local police precinct, and put out on Sina Weibo, the equivalent to Twitter in China. 

Oh…and your social credit score will get dinged.  Last year, 12 million riders were refused entry to planes and trains in China because their social credit score was too low.

What I want to talk about today is the idea of intelligence.

Specifically, how our parsha, Kedoshim, helps us understand the unique role that humans will need to play in a world of omnipresent AI particularly because it has no emotion nor morals.

The root of the word “Intelligence” is Intelligere, which is Latin for “to discern.”

It’s not about the knowledge you have, but how you use it.

Kedoshim provides us the playbook for discerning.

It helps us understand that people are not merely to be viewed as pieces of data. Our behaviors are not wholly predictable. Nor should we all be treated in similar ways. 

The emphasis of Kedoshim is very much the opposite of AI.

Each and every person is made in the image of God and, thus, is a unique and special entity. We are each capable of making ourselves holy…which means that individuals can defy data science.

In fact, the very way that people become holy is through a commitment to separation from the behaviors of the larger group.

Marcus Jastrow’s first definition for the root Kuf, Daled, Shin, is “separation.” 

For example, the concept of “kiddushin” represents the act of separating out the one spouse you have chosen from all the rest. 

Indeed, if we read the mitzvot of the parsha through the lens of separation, we will notice a pattern:

·     Separating Shabbat from other days of the week
·     Separating Hashem from other gods
·     Separating kosher from non-kosher foods

..and so on.
Even better, the separation is, like good software code, something that is binary and can be tested as either “true” or “false.”

-      You either paid the workman his wages immediately, or you didn’t
-      You either coveted your neighbor’s wife, or you didn’t
-      You either avoided idol worship, or you didn’t.

Hashem tells us that we must be Kedoshim, “כי קדוש אני,” “Because I (God) am holy.”

Since God is incomparable and, since each of us has an element of Him in us, there is no human being on earth who is anything other than one-of-a-kind.

Applying the same A-I algorithm to entire populations, therefore, poses a direct challenge to the concept of Kedushah. 

But what about the guidance of "ואהבת לרעך כמוך? --- Love your friend as yourself?  Aren’t we commanded to apply the same standard for our friend as we would for ourselves? 

There’s a story about Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov.

He once saw two non-Jews in a bar.  The first drunken friend asked the other: “do you really love me?”

“Of course!” the second one answered. 

The first one replied: “how can you say you love me if you don’t know what I am lacking [in life?]”

Unless we dig deeper and discern the true & unique needs of another person, we can never fulfill the mitzvah of loving them or separating them out in a way that leads to kedushah. 

Artificial intelligence works in the exact opposite way, by looking for similar patterns across groups of people.  AI does not possess the emotional intelligence to account for the uniqueness of every individual.

This is the domain of humans, the only entities capable of being holy.

Kedoshim helps us differentiate and separate between the things we could do from the things we should do.  The Torah has contemplated a myriad of possible actions and outcomes, especially those prevailing in the surrounding Ancient Near East cultures.

We could sacrifice our children. We could worship idols. We could have prohibited sexual relations. 

Soon, we will be confronted with AI-enabled options about what we as a people can do, the likes of which we will have never encountered before. 

We will have autonomous vehicles that will have to make a decision between crashing into a telephone pole and injuring or killing the occupants of the car or swerving onto a sidewalk, injuring or killing pedestrians.

We could choose either option, but which should we choose?

We could choose to genetically modify our unborn children for hair color, eye color, and artistic or technical leanings…or even implant brains with direct connection to the Internet, creating a race of super-intelligent beings that get 1600 on their SATs at age 5 or earlier. Should we?

We could identify individuals with a propensity to commit sexual assault or theft. Should we?

How do we decide what is really Kadosh and what is not in a world of near infinite possible outcomes and scenarios?

Holiness is something that only humans can attain, which means it is left to us to discern when things should be separated out and when they should not be.

Perhaps the guy jaywalking in China did so because he saw an elderly woman across the street, and he wanted to perform CPR? Or perhaps there was a child in the street he wanted to save from an oncoming car?

As Artificial Intelligence touches ever more parts of our lives, we need to use our ability to discern and remember the human, who is made in God’s image, at the other end of the algorithm.

As Aristotle once said, “the virtue of justice consists in moderation, as regulated by wisdom.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Thoughts from this past week

Just a few random thoughts that I wanted to document for future reference.

  • I am sickened by the attack at the Chabad in San Diego and the NY Times' anti-Semitic cartoon.
  • The size and scope of legal and illegal immigration to the US is an even bigger challenge than most people realize and there's no solution in sight.
  • Many men were trained by society to not show fear and that repression manifests itself in other negative ways.
  • Meditation is really great.
  • In 100 years', Brexit will be viewed as one of the most important events in the history of the 21st century.
  • Tesla may be undervalued.
  • Amazon may go into the travel business. Order your tickets from Alexa.
  • I would not be surprised if California seceded from the US.
  • I have no idea how the proposals advocated by most Democrats such as Medicare for all, free college, and debt forgiveness could ever realistically be funded.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

JavaScript birthday card

I am pretty maniacal about having my kids learn how to code.

Nadia (11) made a birthday card for me in the form of a JavaScript program.

Yes, I am a proud papa.

Performance based Colleges

I feel like my dream is being realized. Here's a new type of college that is initially free for students.

They pay a percentage of their paycheck.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

How Losing Builds Integrity

I am listening to a great book now called, Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality 

One of the things the author talks about is how important it is to teach your kids how to lose.

After all, we all do it. 

So may as well learn how to get good at it and learn from the lessons.

This idea led me to a new series on Netflix called, appropriately enough, "Losers."

It's about athletes who failed.

In the first episode, there's a phenomenal quote from Miles Davis. It reminds us of the silver lining in losing...

“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” 

Monday, February 25, 2019

How political are the Oscars?

I watched the Oscars for about 5 minutes, but the thought crossed my mind if films are nominated/win more these days because Academy voters want to support the message of a film more than identifying the "best".

Admittedly, "best" is subjective, so it may be "best for this time in history," but I couldn't shake the notion that it's more political than ever (maybe not and I'm just more aware of it).

Seems like I'm not alone in thinking that.

Friday, January 18, 2019

How DonorsChoose Brought a Smile to my Face

A few months ago, I shared a story of how I got a DonorsChoose card as a speaker's gift.

I thought it was great and decided to fund a Holocaust awareness project at a school in California.

Recently, I received a bunch of thank you notes from the students and a short report.

I have to say, it felt great on many levels.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What's great about snow days

I think there's something magical about snow days. For me, it's having that fleeting feeling of being a kid again.
I went sledding with Paco and Nadia.
Plus, Nadia and I got into a bit of a snowball fight.
Maybe it's the purity of the white snow that brings back the innocence?

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Completing the DC Metro Marathon

Yesterday, the kids and I spent nearly 10 hours completing the DC Metro Marathon.

What is the DC Metro Marathon?

It is accomplished when you have been to all 91 Metro stations in one day.

We didn't do the "Ironman" -- visiting all of the stations without departing the system for bathroom or food breaks.

We also didn't do a "Perfect" marathon, which is riding the entire system with no breaks and then getting off exactly one stop away from your originating station.

Still, we did pull it off with (roughly) the following data points.
  • time in system: 8 hours and 55 minutes
  • total time elapsed from beginning to end of marathon: 10 hours and 10 minutes
  • door to door: 11 hours 5 minutes
We changed trains 20 times. 

Our most visited station was L'Enfant Plaza.

The longest we had to wait for a train was 11 minutes.

The kids had a great attitude and particularly loved when they had the entire car to themselves, allowing them to engage in some Israeli dancing and relaxing.

This wasn't my first effort at this feat. I did a Metro Marathon by myself 30 years ago when there were fewer stations in the summer before 9th grade.

Anyway, I am sure our route could have been more optimized, but here's what we did. Map below. 
  • Glenmont->Fort Totten
  • Fort Totten->Greenbelt
  • Greenbelt->L'Enfant Plaza
  • L'Enfant Plaza->New Carrollton
  • New Carrollton->Stadium-Armory
  • Stadium Armory->Largo Town Center
  • Largo Town Center->L'Enfant Plaza
  • L'Enfant Plaza->Branch Ave
  • Branch Ave->Foggy Bottom
  • Exit of system with late lunch at Char Bar
  • Foggy Bottom->Vienna
  • Vienna->East Falls Church
  • East Falls Church->Wiehle/Reston East
  • Wiehle/Reston East-> Rosslyn
  • Rosslyn-> Franconia-Springfield
  • Franconia-Springfield->King St.
  • King St.->Huntington
  • Huntington->Gallery Place
  • Gallery Place->Brookland-CUA
  • Brookland-CUA->Shady Grove
  • Shady Grove->Twinbrook
We got picked up at Twinbrook by the NFO.

We had a great time, read a lot, used our various devices, and explored the DMV to the fullest.  It's not for the faint of heart, but it is fun.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The most undervalued play in basketball?

I love the concepts behind Moneyball and all of the stats behind sports.

Recently, I was thinking about the idea of taking a charge in basketball.

If you are a basketball fan, you might like this. If not, skip over.

It occurred to me that it might be one of the most undervalued skills in the game, particularly if the charge:block ratio is high.

Think about it..when a defensive player takes a charge, the following happens:

  • the other team doesn't score
  • the other player gets a foul
  • the other team has a foul added to their tally
  • your team gets the ball
  • and depending on the situation, it can be a huge momentum changer and adrenaline kick

Friday, December 14, 2018

What's your (pass)word of the year?

I was talking to someone on her birthday the other day and she said that every year, on her birthday (in December), she comes up with a word for the following year.

Well, she doesn't invent it, more like "this is the word that I am going to focus on for the year."

Say "gratitude" or "compassion."

I told her I kind of do the same thing and then update many of my passwords with that word.

So, you could do something like:


That would be a relatively strong password and allow you to refocus on it whenever you log in.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

What kind of person do you want to be?

I'm listening to a really interesting book on Audible now called  Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results.

My friend, Derek Coburn, founder of CADRE brought it to my attention.

It's a really practical guide for how to identify the bad habits in your life and change them and implement good ones.

The idea is that the more you "automate" your choices, the more likely you are to achieve your desired outcome in whatever categories you want. Health, relationships, career, tc.

The first step is to identify the habits you already have, many of which are unconscious.

Then, you need to ask yourself, "what kind of person do I want to be?"

Then, ask yourself, "what kind of habits would that person have?"

Go from there.

It's a tough question though, "what kind of person do I REALLY want to be?"

Would love thoughts on how to figure that one out.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Bringing Israeli tech to Africa to improve lives....

Just wanted to highlight this great video from Innovation Africa.

They are a wonderful non-profit that helps bring Israeli technology to Africa and improve things there.

Our good friends, the Lustmans, were recently in Uganda as part of their son's Bar Mitzvah project and they brought solar panels to a rural village that had never, ever had electricity.   The celebrations were amazing.

The Israeli heart and mind just transformed the lives of 1 million Africans forever from Innovation: Africa on Vimeo.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Movie: Bohemian Rhapsody

Took Paco (13) and Nadia (10) to see the new movie about Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody.

What was so remarkable was that all 3 of us thought it was a fantastic story. The ebbs and flows of the actual movie are analogous to the ebbs and flow of the titular song.

I thought Rami Malek was just just magnificent as Freddie Mercury.

One of Queen's albums was one of the first I ever owned and "Another One Bites the Dust" was one of the earliest songs I remember listening to on the radio.

There were so many twists and turns. Emotional highs, lows, and so many different narratives.

It's rare that all 3 of us like a movie and this is one of them.

Monday, November 19, 2018

AirBNB is anti-Israel...and only anti-Israel

The following is a letter that my dad sent to AirBNB about their newly instituted anti-Israel practices.

Your one-sided decision to refuse to list locations in Israel located in Judea and Samaria (or the West Bank settlements as you reference them) is one-sided and unprincipled.
Japan seeks the return of Sakhalin Islands/Kuril Islands occupied by Russia since World War II. 

Is Airbnb going to be in the political arena of deciding disputed claims for territory?

If so, then you should consider closing down operations in many of the following areas of the world. 

If you have not already, then you should consider delisting Russian occupied areas of Crimea, Ukraine, and the Republic of Georgia.

Also, Romania has territory containing 2 million Hungarians that the victors in World War I gave to Romania.

Russia took part of Poland, and Poland took part of Germany in the arrangements after World War II.

Mexico claims a substantial part of the U.S. taken in the Mexican War in 1846, a grievance that remains fresh today among Mexicans.

Bolivia has claims against against territory wrested by Chile, dating back to 1904, which the current Bolivian President seeks to reverse by going to the International Court.

The Argentines claim the British-held Falkland Islands and even initiated a war to reclaim it in the 1980’s.

Iraq claims Kuwait and waged a war, where the United States and other countries in the early 1990’s sent troops to repel Iraq.

Forty-five per cent of Scots voted in 2014 to separate from the United Kingdom, as Scotland was conquered three centuries ago by the British. 

Northern Ireland has a population that seeks to opt out of the UK because it was conquered militarily by the UK by Oliver Cromwell and then settlers were introduced from England and Scotland. 

Finland has claims against Russian occupation of what was Finland until World War II.   

Some in Corsica want out of France, as do some in Brittany and Normandy. 

Just below a majority of those who live in the now Canadian province of Quebec wanted out of Canada in our time.  The British, centuries earlier, defeated the French and took control of Quebec. 

Does Airbnb operate in Tibet, where the Chinese have complete control and the Dalai Lama has devoted his life to secure independence for Tibet.

What do you plan to do with Aboriginal claims to Australia or Maori to New Zealand as well as territorial disputes in South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. 

Will you post sites located in Kashmir, controlled by India where Pakistan has maintained claims for 70 years? 

Oh, I forgot to mention Hawaii, where the Hawaiian of Polynesian origin make territorial and national claims.   

In fact, the Palestinians never had a country.  The Palestinian claim is for every inch of what is now Israel and Israel’s destruction. 

Airbnb is getting into a thicket where it is choosing sides based on a faulty political understanding or bias.

Reverse your decision.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How to Give a Great Bar Mitzvah Gift

Paco got some wonderful, generous gifts for his Bar-Mitzvah, but the one from the Lichts take the cake.

Not so much because of the gift itself (which was fantastic), but because it came with self-addressed fill-in-the-blank thank you note template.

As any Bar/Bat Mitzvah will tell you...the thank you note writing part is one of the least cherished tasks.

Which leads me to conclude that the Lichts are on to something here. The best Bar Mitzvah gifts include the thank you note!

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Hockey Night in Canada...

I would not say I am the biggest hockey fan in the world, but I certainly appreciate the game. Definitely during playoff time.  I usually make it to one (at most two) Capitals games per year.

Like any sport, hockey aficionados are passionate, knowledgeable, and appreciate the  nuances of the game.

There is probably no country in the world that has as many fans per capita as Canada.

Now, I've watched a hockey game with Canadians fact, it was the Women's Gold Medal Game from the 2018 Olympics against the US.  The US won (I had to slink out of the room) and it was great. You learn a lot about a sport by watching with serious fans.

Tonight, however, I had an amazing privilege to attend a Vancouver Canucks game in Vancouver and, not only that, we had front row seats against the glass. It was crazy good. Here's a video that Google auto-made for me and some pics are below. I feel exceedingly grateful for this opportunity.

The Rogers Arena was a great venue and I was impressed by how many staff people were on hand to help...those Canadians, so nice!

Another cool thing was to see how multi-cultural the crowd was (Vancouver is that way as a city), but it seems to me that hockey has a melting pot-like effect on Canadians.

And, this may sound crazy, but since I know all the words to O, Canada! (how I became an honorary Canadian), I actually sang the entire song and got a wee bit emotional as I did.

One of my "bucket list" items was to watch a live hockey game in Canada. Mission accomplished.

Plus...the Canucks won 4-2 and now I know who "Johnny Canuck" is.