Can religion save us from Artificial Intelligence?

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

Sometimes Rabbi Joshua Franklin knows exactly what he wants to talk about in his weekly Shabbat sermons — other times, not so much. It was on one of those not-so-much days on a cold afternoon in late December that the spiritual leader of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons decided to turn to Artificial Intelligence.

Franklin, 38, who has dark wavy hair and a friendly vibe, knew that OpenAI’s new ChatGPT program could write sonnets in the style of Shakespeare and songs in the style of Taylor Swift. Now, he wondered if it could write a sermon in the style of a rabbi.

So he gave it a prompt: “Write a sermon, in the voice of a rabbi, about 1,000 words, connecting the Torah portion this week with the idea of intimacy and vulnerability, quoting Brené Brown” — the bestselling author and researcher known for her work on vulnerability, shame and empathy.

The result, which he shared that evening in the synagogue’s modern, blond wood sanctuary and later posted on Vimeo, was a coherent, if repetitive talk that many in his congregation guessed had been crafted by famous rabbis.

“You’re clapping,” Franklin said after revealing that the sermon he’d just delivered was composed by a computer. “I’m terrified.”

As experiments like Franklin’s and the recent unsettling conversation between a tech columnist and Microsoft’s new chatbot demonstrate just how eerily human-like some AI programs have become, religious thinkers and institutions are increasingly wading into the conversation around the ethical uses of a rapidly expanding technology that might one day develop a consciousness of its own — at least according to its Silicon Valley apostles. Calling upon a wide range of myths from Icarus to the Tower of Babel to the tale of the genie who can grant all our wishes with disastrous results, they are sounding an ancient warning about what happens when humans try to play God.


Before delivering the sermon ChatGPT had written, Rabbi Franklin told his congregation that what he was about to read had been plagiarized.

“Friends,” he began, reading from the AI-scripted sermon, “as we gather today to study the Torah portion of the week, Vayigash, let us consider the importance of developing intimacy in our relationship with others.”

The robotic sermon went on to relate the story of when Joseph, the son of Jacob, was reunited with his brothers after many years. Although they had betrayed him in the past, Joseph greeted them with warmth and love.

“By approaching them with openness and vulnerability he’s able to heal old wounds and create deeper, more meaningful bonds with his siblings,” Franklin read. “This is a powerful lesson for all of us.”


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