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My GPS's Identity Crisis

My GPS's Identity Crisis


How can such a small device be so knowledgeable? How can a machine of that size calculate directions to the most off-the-beaten-track location thousands of miles away in a matter of seconds?

If you're like me, you occasionally stop to consider with wonderment the advances in technology, and specifically, the incredible power of artificial intelligence. For so long, people have concentrated on inventing machinery that can do things. Now we're in an age when we create machines that know things.

I can't help but feeling dwarfed by this little gadgetMy family recently returned from our annual shlep to my native Midwest, a ritual that always includes stops along the way (this year: Niagara Falls). Navigating our way from one location to the next has never been simpler. No need for my wife to decipher my scribbled directions on the fly. We can change planned destinations with ease, and perhaps most importantly, there's no fear of getting hopelessly lost.

I can't help but feeling dwarfed by this little gadget that contains so much information. Do I detect a hint of snobbery in the polite lady's automated voice as she patiently informs me that she is "recalculating" (yes, I'm not even good at following spoon-fed instructions)? Perhaps she's really thinking to herself, "You poor idiot. I know every inch of the gazillion miles of road in the U.S. and Canada; your hard drive could really use an upgrade."

I was about to mute her smug and suddenly irritating voice when I had an epiphany. "Aha!" I almost shouted out loud (I didn't want to wake my sleeping family). "When was the last time you had an epiphany?"

I knew I should have avoided such deep ruminations while driving, because I missed my exit. Again. But this time when she recalculated, I sensed a touch of envy in her voice. I had successfully put her in her place; I'd found her sore point.

She has no unique identity. There's nothing to distinguish her from the millions of fellow GPS's on the market. She's been programmed a certain way, and while she possesses a formidable wealth of information, every bit of it has been uploaded into her by a human, someone just like me. The people who created her weren't programmed to make navigation systems. They figured it out all themselves.

And other than this programmed information, she has no ability to think independently or make any decisions. Why, I bet that if you could get her on a psychologist's couch, you'd find that her deepest desire is to be able to make a mistake. At least that would be something she could take credit for.

You'd find that her deepest desire is to be able to make a mistakeIt occurred to me that it is precisely because of her lack of personality that she has no friends, no one who cares about her or her intelligence. But by now I was feeling a little sorry for my GPS, so I decided not to point that out to her.

All these were somewhat comforting thoughts to have, especially now, during the High Holiday season. Reflecting on the past year, all non-GPS-like beings find that we've made plenty of bad decisions. Again. We've traveled roads that led to nowhere, and prematurely exited roads that were to lead to our desired destinations.

And sometimes we may be envious of the supernal GPS's, the angelic inhabitants of spiritual worlds – G‑dly creatures that are wise and never get lost.

But… is there any real value in their programmed goodness?

This is precisely why G‑d doesn't ascribe much value to the angels' service, certainly nothing near the pleasure He derives from our achievements.

Which brings me to my final thought.

If my less-than-perfect actions are so significant, I think I'll make a greater effort to stay on course this year.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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mh brooklyn, ny September 28, 2009

leave it to to not only anticipate the questions but to even have the answer ready! Reply

Naftali Silberberg (Author) September 22, 2009

To Sarah Masha Keep your eyes open for an article that will be posted on this site in the very near future, entitled "Do Robots Have Rights?", by Arnie Gotfryd.

That piece should answer this question of yours.

Regards to everyone back in the hometown... Reply

Sarah Masha W Bloomfield, MI/USA September 22, 2009

No, the poor GPS doesn't even have the desire to make a mistake. Poor thing, it just can't want anything. There is no feeling behind it at all. Like an angel, it has no choice. Angels at least get to have their instruction from G-d. That poor GPS, it has only humans telling it what to do. Given that, it is lucky not to have any feelings at all.

Tell me, how you would address this point if the machine you were using for comparison had true AI (Artificial Intelligence)? These machines do have more decision making capacity, and sometimes seem to/really do have personality, ability to judge, etc. Reply

Jerry Allentown, PA September 21, 2009

I agree! As I began to read this article, I chuckled to myself, "Hey, that sounds just like me with my GPS!" And, as I read the entire piece, realized that each of us, whether we think we are on course or not, are in need of our spiritual GPS's to "recalculate" and point us in the right direction!

May our personal angelic GPS's always have the latest "maps" downloaded so they can continue to guide us in the right direction. Reply

Anonymous Queen Creek, AZ/USA September 21, 2009

GPS Very nice article, and surely appreciated. Reply