“Live long enough to live forever.” That is the mantra of inventor, futurist, and thought leader Ray Kurzweil. Born in 1949, Kurzweil believes that humanity is on the brink of curing the disease known as “death,” and that people of his generation and younger will achieve immortality through technology.
Kurzweil and others are collecting data about themselves so that by the time their physical bodies are ready to expire, they will be able to download their personalities, their essence, onto a computer, and through the computer program they will live on past their death.
This is an old and familiar theme in science fiction stories, but as they say, sometimes the only difference between science and science fiction is time.
Kurzweil also believes that we will be able to use collected data from previously deceased people to resurrect the dead. And he’s not alone in this belief. A mainstream news outlet recently featured a story about Eugenia Kuyda who claimed to have brought her best friend back to life by using thousands of his tweets, Facebook posts, and text messages.
Over Pesach, every synagogue will read the haftorah of Ezekiel’s dry bones. “G-d’s hand came upon me. He took me out with G-d’s spirit and set me down in the valley, which was full of bones… He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’... I prophesied as I was commanded and the spirit entered them, and they revived.”
In the 1970s, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan wrote an essay vaguely suggesting that personality downloads could be the fulfillment of the prophesies about the resurrection of the dead.
The aggregate of our words form a unique personal impression that remains long after the speaker is gone from the world.
I emphatically believe this to be false. As much as we would like to believe that we can live forever, a digital download of a person’s tweets and Facebook posts into a robot that spits out algorithmically generated responses is no more alive than a Magic Eight Ball (remember those?).
Worse, to treat a digital impression of a person as if it were a human soul is undoubtedly an express form of idolatry, and devalues human life.
While we must never be seduced into believing in digital idols, there is something to learn from the modern craze for digital monuments.
Kurzweil and Kuyda think that the dead can be brought to life through the words that they used while they were still alive. They are only partially wrong. While we can’t bring the dead back to life, the idea that a part of us lives on through our words is not foreign to Judaism. Contrary to what we are sometimes told, when we speak, write, text, tweet, post, or blog. our words do NOT take on a life of their own. The words a person speaks become a feature of the speaker’s essence. The aggregate of our words form a unique personal impression that remains long after the speaker is gone from the world.
Our tweets and posts won’t make the dry bones rise, but our digital monument will succeed us all. It’s something to think about before we bring words to life.
Rabbi Jonathan Gross was the chief rabbi of Nebraska for ten years and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the author of a number of books, including “Ai Vey: Jewish Thoughts on Thinking Machines” and “Values Investing: An Omaha Rabbi Learns Torah from Warren Buffett.” His books and writings can be found at www.ThatsGross.org.