No Other Gods

Written by Rabbi Jonathan Gross on . Posted in Advice Columns

Should robots have to pay taxes? Bill Gates thinks that they should. In a recent interview, he suggested that if a robot replaces a job a human was once paid to do, the robot should have to pay taxes to make up for the lost revenue.

There are legitimate fears and concerns about the adverse economic impact of new job-snatching technologies and what feels like a looming crisis (that’s a nerdy Luddite pun).

While Gates presents what seems like the beginning of a solution, with every solution it’s important to make sure it does not solve one problem and create another.

 

Economics is only one problem of artificial intelligence. Another problem, as seen on TV, is the blurring of the lines between man and machine and the many ethical, moral, and existential problems that come with it.

When the Torah tells us that we should have no other g-ds, Rashi notes that obviously there are no other g-ds, but people sometimes treat certain objects as if they were g-ds. Long before there was artificial intelligence, humans developed a penchant for foisting imaginary qualities of divinity or humanity on objects that have neither.

Before Purim, we read Parshat Shekalim, where every member of Bnei Yisrael was instructed to contribute a half shekel for the national census. Counting people is a taboo in Judaism. A census is only permitted by indirect means. The contribution of the half-shekel tax was a way to demonstrate that each member of the nation had value. The counting “raised up” each person. The “head” was counted, according to Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, because the head is the seat of human intelligence and consciousness (commentary to Exodus 30:12).

As much as we hate paying taxes, in a way, paying taxes makes us human. They say the only things that we can count on in life are death and taxes.

It may sound crazy, but making robots “pay taxes” could be a small, but incremental step towards humanizing them. Corporations already have artificial personhood. An activist in 2013 was thrown out of court trying to claim that he and his incorporation papers constituted the required two “persons” to drive in the carpool lane. However, a decision by the Colorado Court of Appeals, released on February 23, 2017, ruled that a corporation was being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the corporation’s constitutional rights (the cruel and unusual punishment was an excessive fine).

Corporations already have “rights” in America. The trend is now for machine rights. Recently, the EU’s legal committee voted 17-2 in favor of granting certain “rights” to robots that the committee dubbed “electronic personhood.”

To be clear, this is not to say that the Terminators are coming. Many experts think that we are actually quite far from human-level artificial intelligence. My concern is the same concern as Rashi’s. We have to be careful about how we refer to machines. Until we are actually confronted with the challenge of a real live machine that credibly claims to be conscious, we need to be very careful about personifying robots and artificial intelligence. As long as the lines are clear, we don’t do ourselves a service by needlessly blurring them.

Rabbi Jonathan Gross is the author of “Ai Vey: Jewish Thoughts on Thinking Machines.” His books and writings can be found at www.thatsgross.org.