S. Toulmin's Cosmopolis
Reproduction of cover of S. Toulmin's Cosmopolis.

Adam, Golem, Robot - A Dialogue between
Ken Goldberg and me

This arose out of a correspondence between Ken and I February 1995. Ken's text is based on a talk he gave at USC Hillel Faculty lunch with Tamara Eskenazi, Professor of Biblical Studies, Hebrew Union College, on 15 February, 1995.

I must begin by asking your indulgence for I am trained primarily as a scientist and am venturing outside my usual area. My aim is to reconsider the archetype of The Creature in Western literature and thought by examining the linkage between Adam, Golem and Robot.

The well-known story of Adam and Eve is told in chapter 2 and 3 of Genesis. Initially Adam and Eve live in a state of innocent bliss in the Garden. G-d tells them that they can eat from any tree with the pointed exception of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent suggests to Eve that eating from this Tree will open her eyes and make her wise. After she and Adam cast aside caution and eat, G-d appears and they hide. He asks why are they wearing fig leaves and Eve confesses, blaming the serpent. Then Adam confesses, blaming Eve, "the woman You gave me": in effect blaming G-d. G-d responds with a threefold punishment:

  • Woman will experience pain during childbirth.

  • Man will no longer be pampered but must work by the sweat of his brow.

  • Both will become mortal, anticipating that life is finite.
  • Me:
    Joseph Campbell points out that before the Biblical myth of creation, there were other competing myths in that region, with different interpretations of the Garden, the Tree and the Serpent. His Occidental Mythologies has some of this. Check out also some of my thoughts The Tree, The Ladder, The Chariot and the Self

    One interesting thing I want to mention is that tho' we "lost" the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge after we were expelled from the Garden, subsequently Kabbalists figured out a way to "get back in"! Thus, Moses Cordovero, in his Garden of Pomegranates _ (Pardes Rimonim) in the 1500's explores this - see Scholem's Kabbalah for more details. I think that pomegranate refers to female genitals, so it is perhaps some type of kabbalistic sex magick, tho' I am speculating now. Anyway, the point is that the Tree was not totally "lost".

    When we consider these conditions, Pain, Work and the recognition of Mortality, we realize that they define the condition of being an adult. In effect, the consequences of their act of disobedience (rebellion) facilitates their maturing into full human beings. Their expression of free will transforms them from passive innocence to responsible leaders.

    And what about G-d's reaction? Is He Really so angry? Or might He be secretly pleased by the inevitable consequence of his creations. (see the essay, "Did They Fall or Were They Pushed?" )
    In light of this reading, I propose the following thesis:

    The event wherein the creator loses control of the creature is a necessary step towards the development of the creature.

    (Certainly this reading of Creation story runs counter to the traditional Christian view of "Fall/Original Sin" advocated by St. Augustine and Milton ("Paradise Lost"). But this reading is somewhat consistent with Jewish readings of the story, which do not agonize over the events in the garden.) Me:

    A very interesting thesis and an interesting point regarding "evil." Indeed, in Kabbalah, "evil" has its place. The complications which come with loss of control seem part of the process, as you point out.

    Let us turn our attention to the next component of this linkage, the "Golem." I used this term as a shorthand to refer to a story that arises, with variations, in many cultures' mythology and folklore: Prometheus, Icarus, Faust, the Sorcerer's Apprentice, Frankenstein, the Hasidic tale of the Golem. The archetype generally describes a human who creates a creature that comes to life. Initially the creator takes great pride and delight in the creature, until at some point the creature takes a life of its own and runs amok, and in the end the creator pays the consequences for this act of hubris. (Interestingly, it is rarely a woman who plays this role; for a feminist perspective on this subject, see Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto, as well as Jenny Cool's essay on it. )

    There is also a book by Gustav Meyrink, "Der Golem," published in 1925 or so. There is an English translation of this, and I also have a Romanian translation I got in 1991. Plus, of course, the great 1925 Expressionist German film by that title as well.

    Each variant of this story has the same basic message: it is a mistake to overreach, especially in the realm of science: Don't mess with Mother Nature! During the Middle Ages this edict was enforced by the Church: only the mystical and secretive alchemists persisted in trying to create homunculi: artificial men. As a vivid example, recall the horror of the Manhattan physicists when they witnessed the awesome potential of their creation. By then it had gotten away from them and some, in particular Oppenheimer, suffered a Promethean downfall.

    Although the consequences may be severe, I'd like to postulate that:

    The event wherein the creator loses control of the creature is a necessary step toward the development of the creature.

    Me: I have a different take on this: in the story of the Golem, the Rabbi brought the Creature to life only when it was a clear need, to defend the Prague Jewish community from expulsion. It was meant to be a short-lived measure, which it is in Meyrink's version. So is tempering the Hashem -- like power of creation, but in a very circumscribed way.

    The physicists, on the other hand, did not seem to have as much understanding (and compassion), compared with Rabbi Loew, of the dimensions involved in building such an awesome instrument of destruction as the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer, one of the few in the group who did worry about the implications of the atomic bomb work, realizes some of the implications, but too late to affect the decision of whether to drop the bomb, or where to do that. The creators have lost control of the creature , the bomb, but this has had grave consequences. Maybe necessary, but grave nonetheless. Perhaps the lessons we might learn from this is to temper our learning with compassion and wisdom, otherwise we will destroy ourselves.

    Before I leave the subject of the Golem I would like to reconsider the particulars of the Jewish version of this story. After the Golem saves the small Jewish community from the consequences of a accusation of a blood libel, Rabbi Loew asks the creature to fetch water from the well. The Rabbi goes upstairs to sleep and awakens to discover that the entire house is filled with water! The Golem continues dutifully fetch water until the Rabbi tricks it into leaning close enough that the Rabbi can erase the first letter inscribed on its forehead, thus changing Emet (Truth, or Life) to Met (Death), whereupon the Golem turns into a lifeless mass of clay which crushes the Rabbi to death. Again, harsh consequences for the creator. As a Computer Scientist I note that the rabbi's fatal error was to forget to specify what we call a "termination condition". The Golem went into an infinite loop due to a programming error!

    This may suggest a subtle point: the loss of control is often traced back to some 'mistake' on the part of the creator. Consider the case of the Cornell graduate student Robert Morris, who in 1990 experimented with a program that could replicate itself over the Internet. After such viruses (technically, worms) are detected, one way to prevent further spread is to 'inoculate' an uninfected machine so that it appears to be infected. To counter such defenses, Morris added a feature to his program that would, with some small probability, re-infect a machine which appeared to be already infected. Morris set that probability at 5% not anticipating the exponential spread of his program. It soon replicated to that point where many computers on the Internet were jammed with thousands of copies of this program. Morris was arrested and expelled from Cornell. Although many embarrassed system operators advocated chaining Morris to a rock and arranging for an eagle to eat out his liver every day, he is reportedly now working quietly for the NSA.

    Me: I do think it is hubris, the hubris of rationality, which believes it will be able to foresee all the possible contingencies and prepare for them all. yet, it is only a part of the whole mind. It usually works along linear modes of thinking, and misses non-linear or synergetic effects, like Robert Morris did. I feel this is a source of many difficulties.

    This brings us to the final component of the linkage, the Robot. I'd like to differentiate it from the Golem by defining the Robot as a purely mechanical and logical creature who's animation does not derive from spiritual, magical, or alchemical sources as is the case with the Golem. Furthermore, I will characterize the motivation behind creating a Robot as pragmatic: to do work, in contrast to the motivation behind creating a Golem, which is to some degree to demonstrate virtuosity.

    But I would also like to point out that the Golem is "Emet", alive! The Robot is not. Even Frankenstein's monster is made of flesh from other (formerly) living creature.

    In contrast, let us consider the origin of the term "robot" in Karel Capek's 1923 play, 'R.U.R., Rossum's Universal Robots.' "Robot" derives from the Slavic word for 'work'. Consider the consonant German German "arbeit", which appeared as a grim example of Nazi humor on the gates of Auschwitz - "Arbeit Macht Frei" , Work will me you free. The etymology of this word suggests that the robot is a utilitarian creature whose primary purpose is to serve its human master. This role is emphasized in Asimov's science fiction stories. The contemporary science of Robotics also emphasizes the utilitarian, although it carries a persistent thread on interest in virtuosic demonstrations of modern automata.

    By the way, Capek was from Prague. I wondered if he is Jewish, and familiar with the Golem story? Anyway, I like you connecting "rabotai" in Czech and "arbeit" in German.

    K: Is the goal of Robotics to create obedient slaves?

    That is an excellent question. I take it from the subsequent discussion that you think so.

    This raises some subtle issues. Certainly we want robots that do what they are told. But to lessen the burden of programming (and the consequences of making software errors!), we want to pradmine the robot with some ability to make decisions: to act "intelligently". But this capability opens a Pandora's box: once we give the robot some latitude, we may not be able to anticipate all logical consequences. In Artificial Intelligence, success is often declared at the moment when the program or robot is capable of surprising its creator.

    In the 1950's a computer scientist named Samuels wrote a program to play checkers that was able to evolve its decision tables based on past games. Eventually it was able to beat Samuels regularly! Similarly, a team of grad students at Carnegie Mellon University developed a chess-playing program that also evolved based on past games. It soon outstripped its developers and beat a few chess masters. The grad students were hired by IBM which is putting its corporate resources behind the development of Deep Blue, which will take on the world champion Gary Kasparov

    In closing I would like to return to my thesis:

    The event wherein the creator loses control of the creature is a necessary step toward the development of the creature.
    I would like to argue that in all the cases we have considered, from Adam to Golem to Robot, although conventional wisdom warns against hubris and views rebellion or loss of control as a downfall, it seems plausible to read the event instead as a step forward and upward. Although the creator inevitably suffers, the truly inspired creator suffers willingly.

    Come on, leap cheerfully, even if it means a lighthearted leap, so long as it is decisive. If you are capable of being a man, then danger and the harsh judgement of existence on your thoughtlessness will help you become one. - S. Kirkegaard, The Present Age.

    Serpent Lord
    Reproduction from J. Campbell's Occidental Mythologies.

    (To Modernity)


    Copyright © 1994-today Ovid C. Jacob.