It’s always fascinated me how our machines enable us to push the envelope of being human.

So perhaps, instead of throwing ourselves on the pavement before the onslaught of the monster tanks of AI invading human territory, we should acknowledge these systems for what they are—dumb machines built to be nothing more than tools in our hands, like hammers and plows.

Then can we reap their real value—their power to allow us to discover what it means to be human.

Here’s the latest:

Whether you are a professional communicator, such as a writer or art director, or just anybody trying to make a point on social media, you are likely perpetually scrambling for just the right illustration to get across your idea. So we should all be elated to find that two major firms are closing in on a hi-tech, on-demand, solution.

It's called text-to-image generation, with Imagen from Google and DALL-E 2 from OpenAI stirring up a flurry of oohs and aahs the last few months.

In both models, a human operator feeds a descriptive text to a neural network—which just means that it builds new connections each time it processes information—to generate an image (e.g. “Gringo bunny rabbit with shades looking in smartphone while munching red enchiladas on beach chair, pop art”).

The network has been trained on a large number of examples, including bunnies, that relate to the text description it’s been given. Now all it has to do is repeatedly generate lots of gringo bunny images, altering them over many iterations through a process of continuous learning, until it matches most closely the text it's been provided.

The results can be impressive. These systems have integrated a surprisingly large repertoire to mix, match and tweak, and their results sometimes break the imagination barrier of even the human who made the request.

Noam Zur, self-described as a “proud Jewish orthodox”, posted on his Twitter account @avocados_ai a scrumptiously delightsome image generated by the request "Birkat Kohain at the Western Wall performed by avocado characters made out of plasticine."

(Birkat Kohain is the priestly blessing given by the direct descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses. If you haven't been at the Western Wall when it happens, it's just beyond description. There can be thousands of those avocadoes chanting in unison up there.)

That’s just one out of a riveting collection of avocado-art you’ll find in Noam’s feed.

Meanwhile, my brain is starting to feel more like the plasticine and less like the avocado. I've got a new, very concrete metaphor now for something that has always been extremely mind-discombobulating.

AI As Metaphor

As I wrote in The Lunar Files, this universe, in classic Jewish thought, is a voice-activated system. As the line from Psalms goes, "He spoke and it was."

And what does the voice say? Well, words, of course. Text. Meaning: information packets.

So here you have this Supra-cosmic Consciousness initializing a virtually limitless set of instances called "heaven and earth" and then, simply by multiple requests in the form of tight, information-rich packets, extruding from this amorphous reserve of possibleness creations such as light, an atmosphere, oceans, trees and herbage, stars and galaxies, and an almost endless diversity of flora and fauna, all the way to self-aware two-legged critters who build neural networks that illustrate stuff.

Of course, as with every metaphor, it's real power is in its subversion. You need to see where it breaks down—and that's when you really see.

Here it breaks down twice. It's real power is in its subversion

The first is obvious: There’s no boundary between the operator and the operation. One Creator both comes up with the idea and extrudes it out of the set.

And then there’s another non-duality. Because in the metaphor, the AI doesn’t generate that original set of imagery. The supra-cosmic consciousness we are speaking about, however, is responsible for fundamental existence—literally, from the ground (i.e. physical reality) up. So really, there isn't anything else here other than that consciousness imagining us being here. Only that “G‑d’s thoughts are not like our thoughts,” and so rather than a fantasy, we end up as real beings replete with a sense of self and actual free choice.

We only call it “speech,” rather than consciousness or imagination, because it has this inexplicable function of generating critters that feel they are independent others—like in speech, where you speak to someone other than yourself.

But that's all for another essay, which has already been written many times on this website and illustrated in Kabbalatoons.

What really sparked my fascination in Noam's Avocado gallery of DALL-E 2 illustrations is the stuff AI engineers might call flaws, but better off understood for what they really are—emergent artifacts from the fascinating realm of the nexus between algorithmic mechanism and human organism.

The Emergent Properties of Human Meets Machine

Emergence. It’s a buzzword today, both in art and science—particularly in systems theory. In AI, it's popping up all over the place.

Emergence is what happens when parts interact to form a new whole and suddenly there’s something there totally new, belonging to none of the parts, but only to the whole.

In science, a classic case of emergence is how the strange and complex world of quantum mechanics somehow emerges at the macro level as a far simpler Newtonian world. Or how highly predictable chemical bonds are arranged in living organisms, which emerge as largely unpredictable entities. Or in the unexpected dynamics that emerge when those individual organisms interact to form self-organizing flocks, colonies, and communities.

In art, emergence happens when we stare at a random collection of dots and strange faces jump out at us, as our minds attempt to find patterns in chaos.

And in current developments of artificial intelligence and learning systems, the most stunning examples of emergence occur in the unexpected forms of interaction between human and machine.

Here's an example—one of many. A human fed the network the following text:

Rapunzel as elderly avocado rebbe, he lays down his long golden-white beard through the castle tower window, below the tower, stands his jewish orthodox student who came to ask questions, shot from below the tower, fantasy, beautiful, digital art.

And got this:

True, this particular human unleashed an undeniably powerful burst of creative energy upon the machine. Nonetheless, I don’t doubt that he was awestruck at what the machine spat back at him. The scene employs all the elements he requested, yet it speaks from outside the realm of human experience.

Of course it does. It's not human. It's not even an organism. It's a mechanism. It doesn't live within the realm of human experience, or of any form of experience whatsoever. It doesn't live.

And precisely for that reason, it is capable of opening up to us possibilities and experiences from beyond the pale of the most vivid human imagination. The unexpected.

It's really nothing new, just amplified to the extreme. EveryIt's really nothing new, just amplified to the extreme artist, artisan, musician—anyone who engages in the craft of lending beauty to physical materials will experience on occasion the success of self-astonishment. After a long and tiresome labor of love, you behold this creation of yours and ask, "Where on earth did that come from?"

It's not that it didn't come out as you wanted. It's that you had no idea that this is what you wanted—until you see it now before your eyes, or hear it from your instrument.

Again, it's an emergent quality of this interface of human and device, mind and matter, knowledge and action, an intersection at which something unexpected emerges that transcends both poles of the duality, something beyond knowing, beyond human.

Astounded by the Work of His Hands

Does the same occur in the creation of our universe? Is the Creator blown away by the emergent qualities of a physical world?

Intuitively, we should say no. "There is nothing new under the sun," wrote Kohelet. If the sun is here a metaphor case for the Creator, since all comes from Him, how can He surprise Himself? There's no nexus of opposites in this case because there is no true duality.

And yet the Genesis narrative speaks otherwise. "G‑d saw all that He had created, and behold, it was very good."

Rabbi Shalom Dovber of Lubavitch (known as “the Rashab”) was particularly fascinated by this phenomenon of the artist surprising himself. He saw in it the markings of something supra-rational, beyond knowing.

The act of creation, he explained, begins far before the act of knowing, in the fundamental, subliminal realm of self-pleasure. That, he wrote, is where everything begins—in a place inside where you exist alone, in almost absolute stillness. Many of us live our entire lives never accessing that place, never understanding what drives us to do the things we do.

That’s because this internal pleasure does not emerge in an orderly sequence of "this-therefore-that." It is too still, too sublime, too intimate to become a direct cause for anything else other than itself.

Rather, most often it emerges as a sudden flash. It appears to come out of nowhere and vanishes in the same moment, leaving only a trace of an inkling of its knowledge for a skilled mind to process and grasp whatever it can.

So that the inner, essential origin of all art remains trapped within its stillness. It cannot be known by knowing, by understanding, by designing, even by the act of creating. It cannot fit into any of those.

Until it comes to lie entirely outside its artist psyche, as its own material object.

Then, having descended a ladder from inspiration to concept to form and craft to emerge into physical reality, it might occur, just on seldom occasions, that the artist finds himself astounded by his own handiwork. Gleaming back at him is a glimmer of a mystery that lies so close to his own essential self, he could never have otherwise known it exists.

The human being is a micromodel of the cosmic order, and ourThe human being is a micromodel of the cosmic order act of creativity provides a means for us to know the divine. G‑d, too, surprises Himself with His creations.

As His light flows and ebbs through worlds of thought, worlds of meaning, worlds of form, worlds of spirit, eventually constricting and congealing to become discrete physical beings, those beings may then turn around and perform acts of love that none of those worlds could stage, acts of unexpected altruism, of self-sacrifice, of just doing the right thing in the face of every challenge.

So that He, Creator of All Things, may observe and disclose in His creation a divine knowledge of His very essence that could never have been spoken or known in any realm of the spirit.

Only where spirit meets matter and the two collaborate as one, only there can you find the most hidden secret of the essential G‑d.

Getting Down to Business

Are there dangers inherent to AI development? Should we be wary? Of course. Progress and freedom all come at the price of responsibility and forethought. Otherwise, great ideas can go sour and awry real fast.

But that’s another discussion, which I already took up at length here and here.

For now, let me leave it as this: Here's another instance where a technological advance can open our minds to see our universe in whole new ways, vividly illustrated.

As well, it’s another instance of learning our true value as human beings. That’s certainly not in crunching numbers, or solving complex logistics. It’s not even in finding the right combination of elements to illustrate an essay about algorithms that make illustrations of essays.

Being human is about originality, discovery, and harmony—the originality to discover infinitely diverse possibilities of beauty and meaning within a finite, material world, and to reveal this harmony of oneness we call G‑d within a fragmented, physical world.

Which is what building these machines and working with them is really all about.

We are getting closer to the era when all the world will be seen lucidly as one big metaphor—a lab for understanding the divine.

Or as Maimonides puts it, “The whole business of the entire world will be just knowing G‑d.” Because that’s what it’s here for.

"Hey, Siri, generate a universe of self-aware, walking, talking entities made out of nothing but my imagination, searching for their true reality and surprising me with it!"