Project December: Resurrecting the dead through Artificial Intelligence

A chat website called Project December offers an unusual service: resurrecting a deceased loved one. Though some may see this as a precursor to the post-messiah resurrection of the dead, Torah experts are not convinced.

Project December: hyper-advanced artificial intelligence

The site is basically a text-generating system that allows you to craft your own AI personalities from scratch.  By consuming massive datasets of human-created text, GPT-3 can imitate human writing, conducting chat-like conversations with humans. Users can select from a range of built-in chatbots, each with a distinct style of texting, or they can design their own bots, giving them whatever personality they chose. Early testers recreated HAL (the evil computer from the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey), a sheep, Loki ( the God of Mischief featured as the villain in a Marvel Avengers movie), a lunatic, the Architect from the Matrix movie, Lucifer, and even Project December’s creator, Jason Rohrer. A similar project was used to “recreate Jesus.”

The heart of the program is one of the world’s most capable artificial intelligence systems known as Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3, or GPT-3 created by OpenAI, a San Francisco-based artificial intelligence research laboratory. The quality of the text generated by GPT-3 is purported to be so high that it is difficult to distinguish from that written by a human.

The creators of the system touted its prowess and beneficial uses. At the same time, they recognized the potential “harmful effects of GPT-3” which include “misinformation, spam, phishing, abuse of legal and governmental processes, fraudulent academic essay writing and social engineering pretexting”.

Recreating the deceased

But a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle revealed another potential pitfall of the hyper-advanced chatbot. The article related the story of Joshua Barbeau, a 33-year-old Canadian freelance writer who was depressed. Barbeau had become a recluse after his fiancee passed away from a rare liver disease. Eight years later, he was still mourning.

After experimenting with the program, Barbeau decided to try something different, creating a bot with his deceased fiancee’s name. He entered a sample of something she might have said and added a brief description of the roles that the human and the A.I. Barbeau had kept all of Jessica’s old texts and Facebook messages and based his example on a few posts he felt were characteristic of her, expressing her voice. 

His time on the computer stretched into hours of emotional dialogue. Barbeau admitted that he became addicted to chatting with the program.

“Intellectually, I know it’s not really Jessica,” he explained later, “but your emotions are not an intellectual thing.” Grief has a way of becoming “knots in your body, right? Sometimes when you pull on them the right way, they get unknotted.”

He shared his recreation with her family with mixed results. Her mother refused to read the interactions. 

“Part of me is curious,” her mother said, “but I know it’s not her.”

Her sister did not believe it was a healthy way of coping with death.

“People who are in a state of grief can be fragile and vulnerable,” she said in an email to The Chronicle. “What happens if the A.I. isn’t accessible any more? Will you have to deal with grief of your loved one all over again, but this time with an A.I.?”

Sharing his experiences on Reddit, other people in similar circumstances tried to recreate dead loved ones. 

The Chronicle suggested that this use of the chatbot has a growing market:

“In the last year and a half, more than 600,000 people in the U.S. and Canada have died of COVID-19, often suddenly, without closure for their loved ones, leaving a raw landscape of grief. How many survivors would gladly experiment with a technology that lets them pretend, for a moment, that their dead loved one is alive again — and able to text?”

“We are going to have experiences with these A.I.s that we won’t know how to talk about, the article suggested. “Some of us will simulate the dead, because we can, as Project December proves. We will say hello again to our buried children and parents and friends and lovers. And maybe we will get a second chance to say goodbye.”

Rabbi Halperin: AI does not serve God so it isn’t human 

This particular use of the new A.I. technology seems powerfully reminiscent of the resurrection of the dead prophesied to take place in the end of days. But there are some significant differences.

“If they are able to revive a person from total brain death, it will be considered techiyat hamaytim (resurrection of the dead),” said Rabbi Moshe Avraham Halperin from the Science and Technology Torah Law Institute, which investigates modern technology within a religious Jewish framework. “Torah law puts limits on man, forbidding him from some areas which are strictly divine. Reviving the dead is one of them.”

Rabbi Halperin was unimpressed by the new AI.

“Man is defined by his purpose in the world, by his reason to exist, which is to do mitzvot (Torah commandments) and to serve God,” Rabbi Halperin said. “The resurrection of the dead is an extension of this aspect of life, allowing people to continue to serve God for yet another period. The goal of simply restarting the thought process ignores the basis of what man is.”

Also, the resurrection of the dead is explicitly described in Jewish tradition as being a physical process that resurrects the body. Scientists have come close, succeeding in freezing a person. But they have yet to succeed in reviving a person. Cloning is also seen by some as a science-based shortcut to resurrection.

“A man is composed not just of his thoughts,” Rabbi Halperin said. “What we call a soul is contained within the entirety of the mind and the body, the thoughts and the emotions. It is for this reason that the resurrection of the dead includes the body and is not just a mental or spiritual process.”

Rabbi Berger: Resurrection only through Divine will

Rabbi Yosef Berger,rabbi of King David’s Tomb on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, stated that not only was the experiment forbidden, but it had no chance of success. He cited the 13 Principles of Faith established by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, the prominent 12th century Torah authority known by the acronym Rambam. The last of his principles states, “I believe by complete faith that there will be a resurrection of the dead at the time that will be pleasing before the Creator.”

“The Rambam states that we must believe that the resurrection of the dead will happen when it is God’s will for it to take place and at no other time,” Rabbi Berger stressed to Breaking Israel News. “Not only does this effort by scientists go against this principle of faith, but we know that true resurrection can only happen by Divine will.

“Resurrection of the dead is described in depth, and it is proof of God’s rule over the physical world. But it is also stated that before the Messiah, there is no return from the grave.”

He added that the phenomenon of death will vanish after the resurrection of the dead, citing the book of Daniel.

And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence. Daniel 12:2

“The scientists believe they are masters over life and death,” said Rabbi Berger. “Just as they cannot create eternal life, they will find that they are not masters over death. For that, there is only One.”

Rabbi Goldfeder: AI can serve God

Rabbi Mark Goldfeder, a senior lecturer at Emory University School of Law, speculated that AI would, in fact, play a more positive role in the Messiah.

“Some people have proposed an apocalyptic vision of AI in which Man and machine merge in the End of Days, suggesting that this would be tchiyat hametim (resurrection of the dead),” he said.  “Some scientists think they are on the path to achieving this and in some form replicating or even recreating the consciousness of individuals,” Rabbi Goldfeder said. “This is not the traditional understanding of tchiyat hametim and not one that I ascribe to, but that being the case, I can’t imagine why it would be problematic as something else entirely if it is done with proper consent.”

Rabbi Laitman: AI is inevitable in the end of days

Rabbi Michael Laitman, a leading expert in Kabbalah and the founder of Bnei Baruch Kabbalah association, believes that technology and more specifically artificial intelligence, will play a major role in the end-of-days but not necessarily a positive one.

“It is clear in Kabbalah that in the times preceding geula (redemption), Man is going to utilize the entire potential of technology,” Rabbi Laitman told Breaking Israel News. “Men will begin to create artificial intelligence. People will want to achieve something similar to the creation of Man.”

“In the time of the geula, people will understand that all of this development, all throughout history, is what brought us to an even greater collapse,” he stressed. “This will become very clear in war when we see that all of the technology we developed for man’s good can immediately turn around and be used against man.”

Rabbi Laitman believes that the same motives of Man which led to the construction of the Tower of Babel are also in play with the development of artificial intelligence.

“Men wanted to ascend to the heavens and become like God,” the rabbi explained. “To do this, they were dealing with the basic foundations of creation. They wanted to fix something inside man they believed was a blemish.”

Though this motive sounds noble, Rabbi Laitman pointed out a flaw that turned their good intentions into evil.

“This came from a place of ego, in which they wanted to take the place of God,” Rabbi Laitman said.



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