There are many things computer chips can do better than me, and I embrace it. They calculate better than I do, they find disease patterns for the CDC by culling meta-data, they control traffic lights of entire cities better than hundreds of hand-waving police ever could, and they even play chess better than Garry Kasparov. That’s also fine with me, I was tired of trying to beat Garry.
But there are certain things that humans still do better than computers. We post pictures of our lunch better, we argue about sports and politics better, we swim better, and for the time being, we are able to interpret images better. To a computer, a picture is simply millions of colorful pixels. Knowing that those 1.5 million pixels in the middle of a photo are Daddy Burnham is a bit complicated. And while computers are definitely getting better at picking particular faces out of a crowd, which is useful in the security and social media industries, they are still pretty inept at picking out items in a picture (e.g. where in this picture is a computer?), or an irregularity in a video (is anyone in this video nervous or acting erratically?).
There is an entire industry of humans helping computers. Amazon hires tens of thousands of them. They are called Mechanical Turks. Back in the 19th century, there was a device one might find at fairs or carnivals. Housed in a glass case was a mannequin dressed up in Turkish garb, that appeared to be a very early version of the robot. People would pay to play chess against the Mechanical Turk, not realizing that inside the Mechanical Turk was a human chess expert, controlling the Turk. In this way, there are many tasks that people think are done by computers, but are actually being done by people sitting in their homes, getting paid ten cents or less per HIT, Human Intelligence Task.
They might be sorting through blogs and classifying them as Personal, Shopping, News, or Politics. They might be looking at pictures of roadways and highlighting lamp posts or road signs. They can be writing reviews of products, commenting on blog posts, or rewriting articles using different words. The pay is usually pretty low, but many of the people doing it are people who have limited mobility, or are very shy and would rather work for two to four dollars an hour in their homes than be out in the workforce. Still others live in countries where two dollars an hour is a decent wage. (Check it out here, it’s really quite remarkable!)
While the Mechanical Turks do a great job of getting Human Intelligence Tasks done for various companies, there are jobs of a much higher level of importance that can’t be simply outsourced to any Turk sitting in front of a computer anywhere in the world. Those tasks are of vital national security to countries around the world, but we’re going to focus on Israel.
Israel collects vast amounts of video footage of various terrorists threats; known terrorist hideouts, tunnel exits, prominent squares in Arab cities or villages. This data is being collected by satellites, surveillance drones, or video cameras hidden in the infrastructure. Israel needs to know when there are suddenly large gatherings in specific places or when people are acting erratically near a terrorist hideout, but even more specifically it needs to know when a nervous looking individual comes out of a mosque or gets on a bus. Computers are not very good at detecting that.
To make matters more complicated, humans are not very good that either. Staring at a bank of screens for eight hours straight is very boring, and as people get bored, they lose their attention to detail. All you need is one five minute lapse, and a terrorist can come out of a mosque and boards a bus to Jerusalem carrying a bulky package that may contain knives, guns, or an explosive device. So what is Israel doing about this problem?
Please meet the IDF’s Unit 9900, also called the “Visual Intelligence Unit.” This unit actively recruits Israelis on the autism spectrum, individuals who would normally be exempt from army service. While people on the autism spectrum often lag in areas of social development, they are very strong in perceptual skills, specifically with visual and pattern-related components. (Many people on the spectrum excel at putting together very complicated multi-thousand piece puzzles.) Additionally, people on the autism spectrum often find repetitive activities soothing. One soldier described his work analyzing satellite imagery on multiple screens for eight hours straight as relaxing, “like a hobby.”
It turns out that people on the spectrum are uniquely positioned to keep Israeli citizens safe in a way that computers and regular soldiers can’t! Unit 9900 has seen enormous success because it provides benefits to both the individual soldiers and the army! People on the spectrum were often disappointed when they receive exemption letters from the IDF because army service is such a core component of Israeli society, and often leads to employment in the private sector.
In 2008, the IDF ended its blanket exemptions of anyone on the spectrum, and began taking those with higher functioning skills, but all they would offer them was desk jobs in the IDF or in hospitals or administrative buildings as part of the civil service program. Now, the individuals on the spectrum who join Unit 9900 know that they are providing safety and security for Israel’s civilians and soldiers in a way that no one else could. It is enormously gratifying for the soldiers, and according to their commanders they have saved many lives already!
One of the greatest wonders of creation is that G-d was able to create a world in which we are so interdependent. Every one of us has strong suits and lackings, but somehow G-d made the world run in a way where were are able to contribute to others with our strengths and rely on others to help us through our deficiencies. Nowhere is this more evident than in an ideal marriage, where each partner fills the gaps the other has. That was G-d’s intention when He said, “It is not good for man to be alone, I will create a helper corresponding to him (Genesis 2:18).” Corresponding to him does not mean parallel to him, but rather complimentary to him, filling in his weaknesses and being completed by his strengths.
This concept is not limited to marriage, the whole world was made this way as well. One of my favorite blessings is the blessing we make after eating foods like meat, fish, eggs, fruits, or vegetables, the Borei Nefashos. In it we proclaim, Blessed are you Ha-shem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who creates numerous souls with their lackings, for all that You have created with which to maintain the life of every living being, blessed is He, the life of the worlds!
In this blessing, we don’t only thank G-d for creating numerous souls, but we specifically thank Him for creating their lackings, because it is only though the fact that each of us lacking that we have such a beautifully interdependent world. Only through my deficiencies are you able to meaningfully help me, and only through your deficiencies am I able to make a difference in yours. One person makes great bread but can’t fill in his dental cavities, one person can fill cavities but can’t bake. And so the world turns, each person helping the other, until you have a world running on kindness and giving.
Unit 9900 is the blessing of Borei Nefashos being expressed clearly in the world. While many of its soldiers needed specialized education, shadows in school, and other intensive programs to help them through their social development challenges, they are the ones who are now protecting our men, women, and children, in a way that no one else could.
Everyone has lackings, everyone has strengths, for ALL that He created, Thank G-d for such a beautiful world!
Imagine a world filled with only doctors
All acting like our health proctors
We’d be healthy from our heads to our feet
But what would we eat? With no meat… no wheat?
How about a world filled with farmers
Those tough and hardy earth charmers
We’d eat the ground’s bounty till we were full
But who’d make fine garments of cotton and wool?
And if tailors filled every city
Making us look smart and pretty
We’d have wardrobes bursting with clothes
But who’d teach our kids math or good prose
And if the world was all teachers
Those great educational preachers
We’d know all there is to know
But who’d pave our roads and shovel the snow?
Thank G-d for diversity
It makes you you and me me
People of all kinds and breeds
And a world with everything it needs
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this weeks’ Torah portion we read about the Ten Plagues that were visited upon Egypt, due to their refusal to “Let My People Go.” Of the ten, the first seven are found in this week’s portion, Va’aira. After most of the plagues, Moshe went to Pharaoh and offered him a the opportunity to stop the pain but, ultimately, Pharaoh decided to stay the course, and waited until after the last of the plagues, the Death of the Firstborn before finally sending the Jews out.
We find a very interesting discussion between Moshe and Pharaoh after the second plague. The Egyptians were suffering from billions of frogs invading every corner of their land. There were frogs in the people’s bedrooms, ovens, stomachs, and every other place they could present a nuisance. After close to a week of this torture, Pharaoh calls for Moshe and begs for respite, and Moshe agrees. He tells Pharaoh that he can end the plague by simply praying to G-d which would prove that G-d was running the show. Here is the dialogue:
“Pharaoh called for Moshe and Aharon and said, ‘Pray to Ad-noy, and let Him remove the frogs from me and from my people, and I will send the people to sacrifice to Ad-noy.’ Moshe said to Pharaoh, ‘Glorify yourself at my expense. Exactly for when shall I pray for you, and for your servants and for your people, that the frogs be destroyed from you and from your houses, remaining only in the river.’ Pharaoh said, ‘By tomorrow.’ Moshe said, “As you say. You will then know that there is none like Ad-noy, our G-d.” (Exodus 8:4-6)
The simple question is that if Moshe came to Pharaoh and offered to end this horrible plague at any time Pharaoh would ask, why in the world would Pharaoh say that Moshe should pray for tomorrow, why wouldn’t he say simply that Moshe should end the plague right now?
Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1092-1167) explains that Pharaoh suspected that the frogs were not miraculous but rather some sort of natural phenomenon that Moshe was aware of through his use of science/astrology. He thought that Moshe knew the phenomenon was about to end and therefore presented himself to Pharaoh immediately, expecting Pharaoh to ask for it to subside instantly and then, when it would, Moshe would look like he had control over this natural phenomenon. S instead Pharaoh said, “Pray for it to end tomorrow,” thus upsetting Moshe’s ability to capitalize on the normal cessation, in the event that it was natural.
The fascinating thing about this is that it was already the second plague. The first one entailed all of Egypt’s water turning into blood, including groundwater, well water, and even water already in pitchers in Egyptian homes. This was soon followed by billions of swarming frogs, many of whom hopped into burning ovens, something not natural to frogs as we know them (you can imagine the survival of the fittest time span of a species that jumps into burning ovens!). Yet Pharaoh still held out hope that it just all might be natural. It seems ludicrous. What would the probability of the frogs being a natural occurrence be? But it was something Pharaoh desperately wanted to believe, so he went with it.
In truth this is a phenomenon we see happening all the time today. The probability of mitochondria evolving to the organelles they are without an “Evolver” is one in trillions. The probability of beneficial mutations bringing about the gradual change of one organism into an entirely different organism is one in much more than that. Yet, somehow, over 1.1 billion people on this here planet earth believe that there is no G-d, no force that shaped the world and put it into motion. They believe that our world is the result of billions of highly improbable events all coming together “luckily” in a way that they have not come together in any other place we are aware of in the universe. They either are really big fans of the underdog, or are suffering from a bit of the Pharaoh syndrome!
The Parsha starts with G-d reassuring Moshe that he has a special covenant with the Jewish people and that He will take them out of Egypt with great wonders and bring them to the land He promised their forefathers. Moshe conveys this message to the Jewish people, but they don’t believe him, due to their hard work, and distress.
Then the Torah gives a quick recap of the lineage of the first three tribes leading up to Moshe and Aaron, just to give us a proper perspective on who the Moshe and Aaron we will be talking about for the next few parshiot are. At the end of that we find Moshe demurring for the last time, this time based on his speech impediments, after which G-d tells him that Aaron will be his interpreter.
Moshe and Aaron come before Pharaoh and show him a miracle in which Aaron casts his staff to the floor, and it turns into a snake. Pharaoh starts laughing and calls in his wife, then his children, then the school children, and they all do the same with their staffs. However, when Aaron picks up his snake it returns to its staff form and then proceeds to swallow all the other staffs without changing size. After that, Moshe warns Pharaoh of the first of the Ten Plagues – blood.
After Pharaoh doesn’t heed the warning, Aaron raises his staff and hits the Nile which turns to blood. For the next week, the Egyptians could only find blood no matter where they looked, even in wells, reservoirs, and houses. The only way they could drink water was by buying it from a Jew. (No kids outside selling lemonade for 5 cents a cup, more like kids selling water for $10 a cup and having a line of customers!) Pharaoh called his magicians who could also produce blood. This hardened his heart, and he did not let the Jews go.
Then Moshe warned Pharaoh of the frogs and, sure enough, soon the entire Egrypt was covered in frogs. The frogs even went into burning ovens and the people’s stomachs. Pharaoh’s magicians could also produce frogs, but they couldn’t get rid of them, so Pharaoh tells Moshe he will let the people go if the frogs go as well. Moshe davens, the frogs all die, but Pharaoh doesn’t keep his part of the deal.
Next G-d tells Aaron to hit the ground with his staff, and the entire earth of Egypt turns into a teeming mass of lice. This the magicians cannot reproduce, as they have no control over anything smaller than a grain of barley, and they are forced to admit that it is the finger of G-d. But Pharaoh was of the hardened heart type, and he did not let the Jews go.
G-d tells Moshe to warn Pharaoh about the next plague, assorted wild animals, and when Pharaoh doesn’t change his mind, they descend on Egypt and wreak havoc. Pharaoh cries uncle and offers to let the Jews go but, once again, as soon as the plague is over he changes his mind. This pattern continues through the end of the Parsha, as the fifth plague, pestilence, the sixth plague, boils, and the seventh plague, hail, unfold. After watching the miraculous hail, which was a combination of fire and ice, Pharaoh admits that he and his people have been wrong and that G-d was right. But after the hail stops, guess what happens? You got it, he changes his mind and goes back to the old “I will not let them go” line. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: No rain, no rainbow. – Sam Tory
Random Fact of the Week: In a standard deck of cards, the king of hearts is the only king with no moustache.
Funny Line of the Week: The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.
Have a Dandy Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham