Photo Credit: 123rf.com

Twenty-four years ago, I taught myself how to knit in order to make matching Shabbos coats for my two little girls. I became a good knitter, then a great knitter, and then an excellent knitter. I fell in love with yarn and became obsessed with knitting intricately patterned baby sweaters. I contemplated quitting my day job and opening an Etsy store to sell my beautiful knitwear.

But that’s not today’s story. Today’s story is about an article that I read in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago titled “When Consumers Prefer Human-Made Products Over Those Made By AI.” Generally, I’m tired of reading about this topic – about how all of us are going to be made obsolete and replaced by robots, but the graphic that accompanied the article caught my eye. It was a pair of eyeglasses with the right lens and frame held by a human hand and the left lens and frame held by two robotic fingers. Naturally, I thought it was going to be an article about eye doctors or glasses or something that was going to get my optometric blood boiling, so I started reading it because who doesn’t enjoy beginning their day with a cup of coffee and a healthy dose of pessimism about the future and the death of their career?

Advertisement




The content, however, was not quite like that; the question posited by the journalist was the anticipated “Is human labor in danger of becoming obsolete?,” but the answer was more nuanced and more heartening than I anticipated.

Marketing gurus have been spending a lot of time trying to figure out in what instances consumers would rather buy human-made vs. robotic or machine-made products. The above-referenced article describes something called “symbolic” consumption, which means buying something that reflects personal values, interests, status or style. One of the studies that was particularly interesting to me as an optometrist involved purchasing eyeglasses. The study showed that consumers preferred to buy frames that were human-made since the frame is a fashion accessory and hence “symbolic,” so it needs to be special and unique. The lenses that go into the frame, however, can be made by machine since they are functional and add nothing to the fashion or “symbolic” nature of the eyeglasses.

The conclusion drawn from this and other examples was that consumers preferred unique items to be human-made, but that functional items could be made by machines. This is why I love giving hand-knitted sweaters as baby presents; it’s a gift not only from my hands but also from my heart.

Years ago I bought a knitting machine. I had thought it could do some of the tedious dirty work for me so I could concentrate on lacework or cables or some other technique that was more exciting. But the knitting machine was fiddly and hard to use; the yarn kept slipping out of the grooves and stitches kept getting dropped. More than that though, there’s something about hand knitting that can’t be outsourced: the sensation of the yarn gliding over the needles; the felicitous surprise that ensues when you use multi-hued yarn and you get to watch each colorful stitch do its little happy dance as it jumps off the needle and onto the evolving garment. Some knitting nerd made a YouTube video where she challenged ChatGPT to create a knitting pattern. It succeeded on a technical level but the pattern itself was boring and uninspired, even when she gave it more detailed instructions.

I have no doubt that sometime in the future a robot with a deep knowledge base and finely articulated “fingers” will be able to knit and perform eye exams and do myriads of other things that will irrevocably change the way we spend our time and earn our livelihoods. I, for one, do not plan to succumb to the lure of an easier life. I want to knit until my fingers bleed and my wrists scream and the yarn becomes saturated with all of the hopes and prayers that I wish for the tiny beneficiaries of my tiny hand-knit sweaters.

Maybe one day a robot or AI or some other new techno-thingie will be able to knit the very same sweater in a quarter of the time. It will be cheaper and mistake-free; no slipped stitches or awkward color joins because robots are perfect and don’t run out of yarn or forget what row they’re on. Babies, however, cannot be fooled. Their bodies instinctively know that the sweater so lovingly made by their besotted Bubby, adorned with teddy bear buttons and the subtle hint of her perfume, will wrap them in a perpetual hug, an embrace that will linger long after the sweater is outgrown and the baby becomes a man.

Can we teach AI to knit? Absolutely. But why would we want to? Why would I forfeit the pleasure of scouring the internet for a new and challenging pattern and then hunting for the perfect yarn and buttons to go with it? In the same vein, why would any writer or artist allow ChatGPT to interfere with the creative process?

Sure, I’d like to whip out an article in a day, but would it really be mine? Is it ethical or fair to claim ownership of a piece that was delegated to a machine? On the flip side, AI is being used in incredible ways to advance healthcare; for example, it can be incorporated into retinal photography to detect diabetic retinopathy, a useful tool for patients who don’t have access to traditional eye care due to geography or financial hardship. This is the crux of our quandary: what tasks get outsourced and what do we keep for ourselves? If we teach AI to think, can we teach it to feel emotions? No one really knows the answers to these questions, least of all to the question that should be keeping us up at night: if AI can mimic man, what makes us human?

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks answers this question for us in his “Thought For the Day,” which was broadcast on the BBC. He says that what makes us unique is not our intelligence, which can be duplicated by a machine, but our ability to love and be loved. “G-d makes us all in the same image, His image, but we all come out different.” People, real people, cannot be mass-produced; each one of us is special and unique and therefore irreplaceable. When we die we are gone forever; G-d does not take our template and reuse it. This is what makes loving one another so poignant and fragile, and this is what makes us human, the fact that no one is a substitute for anyone else. Intuitively, we know this to be true, so we value things that are handmade, that are lovingly crafted; things that tell a story long after their teller is gone.

Advertisement

SHARE
Previous articleWhen the Broken Path Still Leads Home
Next articleA Precious Gift
Dr. Chani Miller is an optometrist and writer who lives in Highland Park, N.J., with her family. She is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.