I just saw a new book about Robots called Robots in Law. At first I thought, “We haven’t even fully unpacked the far reaching ramifications of robot marriage, and now we are already thinking about what it would be like to have robot in laws!”
Then I looked at the sub title How artificial Intelligence is Transforming Legal Services. As a law student, that might be even scarier than finding out that my mother-in-law is a robot.
In my contracts class this morning at the University of Baltimore School of Law, the professor taught us more techniques on how to carefully read a contract looking for ways to spot issues that can arise. With every new concept I thought to myself, “is this something that a robot can do? And if so, what the heck will a law firm need me for?”
New technology rendering old jobs obsolete is not a new phenomenon. While many look towards the future with apprehension and anxiety, there are optimists who maintain that things will work themselves out, and in the end we will all be better off (although I cannot imagine how a world without lawyers would make us better off!)
The Torah touches on this topic. Adam was cursed that he would only be able to make a living by the sweat of his brow. Taken literally, we have come a long way in the last 5000 years in breaking that curse. If you work in an office you generally make your living without breaking a sweat (unless the air conditioning is out in the summer.)
The word robot was coined by the Czech playwright Karel Capek in 1920. It comes from the root ‘robota’ which means labor. The purpose of robots is to assist man in his labors and make life easier and provide the necessities of living without breaking a sweat.
But there is a midrash that suggests that Adam’s curse was really a blessing. People like to work. There is a sense of accomplishment when you eat the fruits of your labor. That goes for physical labor where you literally break a sweat, as well as in the proverbial sense when you apply your mind and solve a problem.
People are scared about the unemployment that may follow from new technologies, although there are many hopeful books written on the topic.
While unemployment is the most imminent and pressing concern, there are other concerns we should be thinking about as well. When robots do our physical labor, we become physically lazy. What will happen to us when they do our more intellectual tasks?
Its already happening in many ways. Think of what google and wikipedia has done to research. Think of all of the phone numbers you remembered before you could enter them into your phone. Think of what Waze and Google maps did to your sense of direction.
To compensate for the loss of physical labor, we have gyms that keep our bodies healthy. As technology continues to change our lives and take more of our day to day thinking away, we need to go to a gym for our mind.
Jews have an answer. We go to shul and learn Torah. There is nothing better for the mind than learning Torah. When I was in yeshiva (way back in the 1900s!) I remember someone predicting that by the year 2000 we would no longer be using books, only computers. But that didn’t happen. Sure, computers are helpful when doing a research project, but not when learning a page of gemara. The reason is because we have a value of learning for its own sake. The computer cannot learn for us. The only way to get the job done is to apply your own mind, not the mind of a computer.
We have to hope and pray that the optimists are right and that the future will not see mass unemployment brought about by robots. Hopefully lawyers and other professions will figure out how to adapt and work alongside the robots. For most of us that future is not in our hands.
However, what we can and must do is keep our minds in shape. We can do that by learning Torah the same way that our ancestors did. By meditating on the words of the Torah and the words of the sages, applying our minds to thinking for ourselves what those words mean, and by incorporating the values into our daily lives.
That endeavor can never be outsourced to a machine, it is our duty to stay in shape and do it ourselves.