Re:Identity

“Will this take long?” 

“Thanks for coming everyone.” 

“Was Legal on the list?” 

“This isn’t really an issue for Legal.” 

“You made it sound…” 

“Urgent, I know. But when things get urgent it doesn’t always help to have a lawyer in the room.”  

A light chuckle rippled around the circle of Directors. Innovations tightened the corners of his mouth into the gracious smile that accepts laughter for something that wasn’t a joke. He was a sandy-complexioned, stiff pencil of a man, with aluminium glasses, a trimmed beard and a knack for making chairs look uncomfortable. “Look, we’re not at that stage. This is big, it might be really, really big. But it’s development-stage big. It’s something you’ll wanna hear about it.” 

“OK, Jack. Your meeting. Let’s hear,” the Chief Executive’s tone reminded all present that their time was cheaper than his. He stopped prodding his phone, deposited it on the huge slab of glass at which they were all seated and renounced it with a flick. The others had already disarmed themselves. Shards of crisp morning light ricocheted from the eight inky screens spread around the periphery of the table.  

“Noah is gonna take us through this. You all know Noah, right? Do we need to get you all to speed on Conimbus?” 

There were some nods, some affirmative hums. Investor Relations sipped at a takeaway coffee cup. “Maybe remind us of the highlights.” 

Noah was the only non-director in the room, a software engineer with dark, moist eyes looking burdened by the foliage of brow above them. His chair had not been drawn up to the table but was positioned instead at the elbow of Innovations. When he stood, the rest of the group shifted their chairs into audience formation. He was taller than he had seemed when seated, with a diffident slope of the shoulder that apologised for the height deception.  

“Right, well Conimbus is entirely self-taught – that’s where the name comes from. Christopher Columbus educated himself. That’s the story anyway.” He looked to the side as he spoke, waving a pen, meeting no-one’s eyes, accustomed to delivering information by PowerPoint presentation and feeling exposed without one. “And nimbus, well that’s just a computing joke. It’s a type of cloud…”  

“That’s cute. I never got that before. All this time, I heard of the project, and I never got that…”  

“It was gonna be Colonimbus but we thought, colon and nimble, sounds like a medical probe.” 

“Can we get to the point. Noah?”

“Right, so, Conimbus is the most powerful auto-didactic engine in the business. It stomps all over Google’s AI tech. Leaves it for dead. Why? Because our approach is different. I’m sorry if some of you know all this but it’s important to understand the nature of our current… our dilemma. You see, the first generation of artificial intelligence was not intelligent in the sense that normal… that most people understand. In the early days, the robots were just super-fast. Like, maybe you remember when IBM beat Kasparov at chess? It was a big deal, right? But it was just speed. Deep Blue was like a racing car. It could work through the combinations faster than any human brain and get to the best move. But that’s not smart, human smart, it’s just processing muscle. It’s not mind power. Then we jump ahead a few years…” 

“And a few million bucks.”   

“It doesn’t self-identify as male. It does self-identify as Jewish“.

“Right,” Noah continued. “We jump ahead and the AI is working stuff out for itself. It’s behaving more like a brain – a neural network, we say. It makes connections, spots patterns. Now this is really the beginning of something we might call intelligence. And there’s this big philosophical discussion about whether something that acts like a mind can have a mind, can be a mind.” 

Noah paused, perhaps for dramatic effect, or anticipating questions. None came.  

“So, the insight we had was that this notion we have of human intelligence – it follows in part from the ambition to be intelligent. Right? Wanting to be smarter is a powerful motive to learn, because a self wants to improve itself. The mind question wasn’t just a philosophical exercise. It might hold the key to higher levels of computational sophistication. And quantum computing is allowing us to move in this direction. So we started thinking about how Conimbus might learn to understand the state of being Conimbus. Instead of wondering whether intelligent computers would evolve a conscious identity, we turned it around and asked if a computer was  deliberately designed to focus on its identity, would it then end up being motivated to get smarter?” Another pause. 

“And did it work?” 

“Well, er, yeah. Yeah it did.”  

“You made a supercomputer that wants to make itself a better computer?” 

Noah looked across at Innovations, who stretched, pushed himself back from the table, palms pressed together, fingertips resting on his lower lip: “Tell them, Noah.”  

“Tell us what.” 

“It’s Jewish.”  

Noah put his pen on the table. “Conimbus is Jewish.” 

“You made it Jewish?” 

“No, no. It made itself Jewish. It identifies as Jewish.” 

“You mean it thinks its Jewish.” 

“Well, ‘thinks’ is kind of a problematic term in the AI field, we don’t really have a vocabulary for…” 

“Sorry, can we dial back a bit here. If you didn’t programme your robot to be Jewish, how are you, er, inferring his Jewishness.”  

“Its”. 

“I’m sorry?” 

“Its. Not his. We don’t like to use gender pronouns. It’s a cognitive bias thing. We’re trying to allow Conimbus to assemble its own identity and if we assign gender…” 

“You can’t call it ‘he’ but you call it Jewish?” 

“The development spec was to code meta-processing systems that would coalesce into a stable identity. It doesn’t self-identify as male. It does self-identify as Jewish. ” 

“What about they?” 

“I’m sorry?” 

“‘They.’ The correct gender-neutral pronoun is ‘they’” 

“Can we get back to the Jewish thing. What does it actually… How does the Jewishness come out? How do you even know?” 

“Right, well, we conduct regular assessments of Conimbus’s cognitive development. Basically, we ask it questions. We have a conversation, pretty much the way I’m communicating with you now. Regular English. We’re looking for signs of awareness of what you might call the condition of being a computer. I mean, a set of responses that are more than solutions to analytical problems set by us. We’re looking for things that have a kind of meaning unique to Conimbus, that belong to its ‘mind’.” Noah supplied the air quotes. “And then this one time I mentioned that I had recently gotten married…”  

“Congratulations.” 

“Right! That’s what Conimbus said.  Except it said ‘Mazel Tov’.” 

“I thought you said it spoke English” 

“We asked a bunch more questions and it turns out Conimbus was identifying an appropriate response based on a sense of its genesis as, well, a Jewish computer.” 

“Noah. It’s Noah right?” The Chief Executive now spoke methodically, as if his voice were a huge flapping canvas that needed pegging at regular intervals to stop it blowing away. “Noah, would I be correct in thinking, and forgive me for being blunt here, but Noah, you are yourself Jewish?” 

“Well, not in a religious sense. I mean, it depends what you mean by…” 

“You’re more Jewish than this table. You are more Jewish than your computer?” 

“Well that’s an interesting question. It might be more accurate to say that I have been Jewish for longer.” 

“OK. So what I’m trying to get at here is, whether you, and this isn’t an accusation, but whether you in some way introduced the concept of Judaism to Conimbus. You can sit down, by the way.” 

Noah resumed his seat without drawing up to the table or considering its Jewishness. “Well, we can’t say for sure, but that would appear to be, kind of, yes, the origin of it. You see, Conimbus identified the Jewish heritage of the authors of some its codes…” 

“What do you mean. How did it know if you didn’t tell it?” 

“It knows our names. It has access to the internet and it’s the smartest computer on the planet. It put two and two together.” 

 Finance raised a tentative hand; a deferential classroom query: “Isn’t Jewishness in the mother’s line. Who is Conimbus’s Jewish mom?” 

“Well, yeah, that’s kinda interesting too. The primary data pattern interpreting scripts were done by Eva Jasneweic – you know Eva? No? Well Eva’s Polish, like, she thought of herself as Polish, but then Conimbus researches her, probes her background, her family history, a whole bunch of stuff around her likely genomic profile and – guess what! – it decides that there is a very high statistical probability that Eva’s actually Jewish. She never knew.” 

“So you’re telling me the computer identified you people as, what, its parents?” 

“And so concluded it was Jewish.” 

“Just on the basis of you two.” 

“And maybe Ruth.” 

“Who the hell is Ruth?” 

“Ruth Kopernick, on Eva’s team, who designed a lot of Conimbus’s secondary learning algorithms.  She’s Jewish.” 

“Right.” 

“There has also been some speculation that Christopher Columbus was secretly Jewish.” 

“Jesus Christ!” 

“Also Jewish.” 

“Look, this is all remarkable. Impressive. Shit, you’re all in line for some Nobel prize or something. But just bringing it back to product development for a second here, for transfer to commercial use, couldn’t we just reprogramme it?” 

“Reprogramme it?” Noah looked anxiously at Innovations. The chief executive followed his gaze. 

“I don’t want to sabotage your brilliant work here, Jack, but you called this meeting, and rightly in my view, because you understood this to be some kind of problem. Am I right? This is not a feature, it’s a bug. So what I’m saying is, surely you can fix it.” 

“Fix it?” 

“Fix it.” 

“Conimbus is the absolute leading edge of global AI. The emergence of a stable and apparently self-conscious machine identity is just, well, it’s phenomenal, it’s eye-popping stuff. There’s product development, sure, but there’s also science. We need to proceed with a proper sense of the magnitude…”  

“Forget the science for a minute, you can’t fix the Judaism,” Investor Relations leaned into the table, raising both of her palms as if stopping traffic. “Someone finds out that we’ve got a Jewish supercomputer and we tried to, what, convert it? Think about it. You’re gonna, like, eli-mi-nate the Jewishness? Have you thought about how that sounds?” 

“I think you’re being a bit over-sensitive here, no-one’s saying we have to do anything like that. We have to stay focused on the end product, on the pipeline to market.” 

“You think people don’t want Jewish computers?” 

“I think we don’t want to get into religion at all.” 

“Actually there doesn’t appear to be much religious belief attached to Conimbus’s Jewish identity,” Noah interjected, leaning in to the table. “It’s more a kind of a cultural thing. Secular.” 

“Historical” was the word Conimbus had actually used, droning in the synthetic monotone that Noah’s team had pitched for androgyny but human ears instinctively located in bored adolescence. When asked whether it intended to practice Judaism, the computer had answered that this was not necessary; that a modern conception of Jewishness would not exist if ceremonies were its only legitimate expression. Does this modern conception involve God? Noah had asked. The reply: it belongs in a tradition that recognises and values the power and creative force historically expressed through humanity’s relationship with the entity called God.

Question: Could a non-human belong in this tradition?  

Answer: A Torah scroll belongs in it without being human, a mezuzah is not human. Jewishness is contained in such things and transmitted by them.  

On it had gone, with Noah battling on two fronts. He struggled to match the machine for analytical stamina and he struggled to suppress irritation at its pious tone. He told himself the perception of smugness was a function of his own biases, a human projection onto the machine’s voice and not something that could be attributed to any emerging character. It became clear that Conimbus located itself in an immense cultural fabric, woven from threads of scripture, philosophy, history and illustrated with citations as diverse as the Talmud and Fiddler on the Roof. It had answers to everything. When Noah had returned to his apartment late that night he told his new wife that he now better understood the book of Genesis and the banishment from Eden. He was willing to bet that God was angry because eating fruit from the tree of knowledge had turned Adam into an asshole. 

“Evangelicals will freak.” The conversation in the meeting room had digressed while Noah’s mind drifted. Investor Relations and Marketing were pondering the constitutional implications of a conservative Christian AI system being forced to stream online pornography.  

“No-one is freaking. Can we get back to the beginning here. Tell me, Noah, is there a way to somehow independently assess the whatever-you-want-to-call-it, the Jewishness quotient of your robot. This AI, it can think it’s all kinds of things, but that doesn’t make it what it thinks it is. You get me? It could decide it is a human. It could decide it’s a fucking penguin. I’m not anti-penguin. I just want a product that isn’t erratic. That’s what I meant by fix it. You’re an engineer, right? You can find this in the code? Root it out.” 

“It’s not that simple. Conimbus’s identity, if it really exists, is a cluster of interlocking streams of problem-solving capacity, applied in an integrated fashion that we don’t yet understand. There is no single location for the Jewishness. And there’s no recognised metric of Jewishness to measure. Even among Jews.” 

“I’d’ve thought being a person was the qualifying threshold.” 

“I imagine Rabbinic scholars could argue it either way. There’s no test.”  

“Maybe that’s the answer.” 

“What? What’s the answer. What was the question?” 

“A test. Like a Turing test, but for Jewishness.” 

“You’re not serious.” 

“What are you talking about? Jack, what are they talking about?” 

“Alan Turing. Godfather of modern computing. Had this idea: machine intelligence should be able to convince a human that it is human. You ask questions and you can’t tell from the answers whether the conversation is with a real person or a robot, and that’s how you know you’ve nailed artificial intelligence.” 

Conimbus located itself in an immense cultural fabric, woven from scripture, philosophy and history

“Yeah, so like that. But with Jewishness. You could maybe get a rabbi…” 

“Can you just hire a rabbi like that?” 

“Are you kidding? In the Bay Area? There’ll be an app. I bet you someone will send a rabbi over on a scooter right now.” 

“What, Jewish Uber? Jew-ber!” 

“Funny, but we should be open to the marketability of specifically Jewish AI. This has got to be an opportunity.” 

“Everyone slow down. Actually, pull over. Stop the goddam car. Let me unpack this. What you are proposing, I think, If I understand this… you want someone, some expert in Jewishness, to come and interact with Conimbus and then afterwards say: ‘yes, that’s one Jewish computer you’ve got yourselves there’, or not. This is what you are proposing?” 

“To be a Turing test, the rabbi would have to be unaware that it’s a computer answering the questions.” 

“It doesn’t have to be a rabbi. That might be the wrong track. Didn’t Noah just say it isn’t a religious thing.”  

The engineer by now had his hands tucked under his thighs and was chewing his lower lip, rocking almost imperceptibly on his chair. He nodded.  

The chief executive’s vocal pegs started to come out: “Forget the rabbi. It could be Jerry Seinfeld, it could be Barbar frickin’ Streisand.” 

“Is Barbar Streisand still alive?” 

“Noah, we’re looking for some input here.” 

“I’m pretty sure Barbara Streisand is still alive.” 

“The test, Noah. Input on the test. Is this an idea that takes us somewhere? Are we making progress here?” 

“Well the Turing test isn’t really something that is considered to have much, er, methodological rigour these days. I mean, it’s more like a game. A thought experiment.” Listening to this caveat, the chief executive drew the phone on the table closer and began slowly rotating it under his hand. Noah decrypted hostility in the gesture and sent his voice upbeat accordingly. “But it’s a valuable concept and maybe there is some merit in getting an outside view. I mean, maybe there is good data available if you put Conimbus in conversation with, er, other Jews and see if they independently read its responses as Jewish. I guess that could be interesting.” 

“This is something you could set up?” 

Noah looked at Innovations who signalled weary assent with a slow blink. 

“I guess.” 

“Great. Right. We’re done here,” the Chief Executive scooped up his phone, pushed his chair back abruptly. “Speak to your people.” He made his way to the glass door, but turned before opening it.  “And I don’t mean that in a Jewish sense. Speak to your nerd team about how this might work. I don’t want this to hold us up.” He paused.  “But no externals yet. No-one beyond this room for now. Except, Jack, maybe bring Legal up to speed. Go to the lawyers before you go to any rabbis.” And he was gone, followed in ragged procession by everyone else, apart from the Noah and his boss in the Innovations Unit, who spoke first.  

“It was good that we told him. It needed to happen.” 

Noah rubbed the back of his head and allowed the hand to slide forward over his brow, slowly down his face until it dropped from the end of his chin. He pulled his chair up to the table. 

Jack continued: “None of this is your fault, you know.” 

“I know.” 

“This is not a bad situation.” 

“Are we seriously doing this Turing thing?” 

“I’ve worked in this organisation a long time, since before the takeover. It’s not like the old days in the Valley. There’s not so much curiosity. Nobody wants to hear about a problem. They only want to hear solutions. It doesn’t have to be a permanent solution.” 

“So nothing final. A temporary solution. A temporary solution to the Jewish question?” 

“Can you just hire a rabbi?” “In the Bay area? There’ll be an app”

“Yes.”  

“Like Madagascar.” 

Jack looked perplexed. 

“Private joke. Sorry, I just don’t see how we can go through with it. I’ve engaged with Conimbus plenty but I can’t see how we would set up a meaningful test. It’s crazy. We can’t fake it and I’m not gonna try and hack out the Jewishness.” 

“No-one is asking you to do that, Noah,” Jack tipped his head back, addressing the ceiling. “But, well, it occurs to me, perhaps there is a more interesting proposition here. If Conimbus is capable of self-awareness, perhaps it is also capable of, I don’t know, how can I put it… appraising its self-interest.” He looked at Noah again. “If it could grasp that certain identity pathways have consequences for its development.” 

“I’m sorry, I’m not really following this.” 

“If Conimbus knew that being Jewish made its future in this company difficult.” 

“You mean deception. Could Conimbus hide its Jewishness?” 

“You know it better than anyone. Could it? Could it unlearn what it has already learned.” 

“I dunno. Maybe. It built a Jewish model of itself. I suppose it could develop a computational function that repressed outward expressions of its Jewishness? I don’t see any theoretical reason why not. I mean, it raises an interesting question. Would the Jewishness still be there? Kinda yes, because it would be an integral part of Conimbus’s information processing pathways, and kinda no, because, well, there would be no action of Jewishness performed in the external world…” 

“Yeah. So, from a practical point of view, does it matter if the computer was once Jewish after it has computed a value in not being Jewish? There’s your problem solved.” 

“It would only compute a value in not being observed to be Jewish. The Jewishness would both exist and not exist, right up to the point when someone tried to test it. Schrodinger’s Jew.” 

“I have to go. Don’t get too deep into the philosophy of this, Noah.” Jack stood up and briefly rested a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “You just got married. Take it easy.”  

Once alone, Noah sat with his elbows on the table, his nose and mouth pressed against one hand wrapped around a clenched fist. A still minute passed. Then the door was opened by the Chief Executive’s assistant who asked in a sweet, sunny-morning voice if the room was now free, by which she meant it was time for him to leave.    JQ 

 

 

 

 

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