Time to Embrace Reality

My kids and I have shared a running conversation going back to their childhoods.
The context is that our world is not what we think it is. Instead, we are all characters in some kind of simulation, hosted and manipulated by some forever-to-remain-unseen power. We have had a lot of fun using our imaginations to describe how we are nothing but entertainment for an artificial intelligence or an intellectually superior alien civilization.
But sometimes I wonder whether our reality is getting closer to our imaginations. Many of you may have read Jewish Federation President and CEO Marc Blattner’s recent “Is It Live or Is It Memorex” column (“Marc’s Remarks”), in which he describes how artificial intelligence can be used to enable an automated program to converse in a conventional way. When we are trying to determine whether we are interacting with a program or with a human, the lines are becoming blurred.
We are also aware of “deep fakes” – videos of actors, politicians and pop culture personalities saying or doing things they did not actually do. The creators of deep fakes use artificial intelligence and machine learning to create deceptive, manipulative visual and audio. On one level, it is entertaining. But on another level, it is terrifying.
We already have the ability to create believable videos that can undercut elected officials, influence political elections, use the likeness of actors in roles they did not play, communicate false news and generally manipulate anyone in a position of authority.
I have watched a number of deep fakes and encourage you to do the same. The lines between fantasy and reality are disappearing. If we depend on the internet as a primary source of information, what is real? What is fake? AI is setting a trap, and if we are not careful, down the rabbit hole we will go.
We are a social species, genetically hard-wired to connect with others. Our technology has begun to outrun our ability to filter and process the information, images and audio that flood our senses every day. We are not yet capable of thriving in a virtual world. We must constantly be vigilant about the echo chamber we have inadvertently created to receive information. We can find anything on the web, but watch out – can we believe what we see and hear? The lines between reality and fiction are fading fast.
This is related to how we want to have control over our lives. We want the world to make sense. We want to have freedom of choice. But then we stumble on conspiracies. And these conspiracies are everywhere. The comfort of conspiracies is that they make the world make sense from our particular point of view. But conspiracies fail to reflect the world as it really is.
And now we have deep fakes, getting ever more sophisticated. On a certain level, we want to believe it is real when we see elected officials say what we want to hear, view news that confirms our biases or watch politicians running for office say something controversial or learn about any authority figures in “gotcha” moments.
But what we see and hear can be nothing more than a simulation … a simulation solely designed to manipulate us.
So what can we do in the meantime, when the distinction between fantasy and reality is harder and harder to determine? We can foster a genuine, in-person connection with others. We can engage in authentic conversations and show others not what we want them to see but reveal to them who we truly are. This requires risk and trust. Who do we have in our lives with whom we can truly connect? We only need one person.
We can also get outside, even if we get a little wet or cold. When we feel nature’s elements, we sense reality.
At mealtime, we can savor what is on our plate. We can take our time, enjoying every bite.
We can read an actual book … not through a tablet, laptop or smartphone, but an old school book – with a cover, pages that stick together and perhaps endnotes and an index. We can take our time, patiently turn the pages, go back and re-read or go forward to see how far we have to go.
Let’s always remember that fantasy may be entertaining, interesting or engaging, but reality is always, for-better-or-worse, our only source of truth. Let’s attune our senses and adjust our filters to grasp and accept what is real in our lives.

Rabbi Barry Cohen is the Jewish community chaplain of the Greater Portland area. chaplain@jewishportland.org


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