A story just broke at Tel Aviv University that could someday change how Jews see and define themselves. TAU announced on April 15 that researchers there had 3D-printed a heart.
“This is the first time anyone anywhere has successfully engineered and printed an entire heart complete with cells, blood vessels, ventricles and chambers,” Tal Dvir, a professor in the TAU Department of Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology and the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, told Haaretz.
Yes, 3D-printing is pretty cool. Basically, it is the process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The process involves laying down successive layers of material until the object is created.
All kinds of stuff can be made this way. Guns have been 3D-printed, acoustic guitars, camera lenses, looms, shoes and clothing, even a 3D fetal model of an unborn child.
But a heart?
To be sure, the TAU heart is far from functional. The size of a rabbit’s heart, it doesn’t beat – yet – so it can’t pump blood. But it was made with human fatty tissue – the “ink” as it were. In theory, a working, human-size heart could be 3D-printed with tissue of the recipient, making it less likely the body would reject the implanted organ.
So science is on the cusp of manufacturing body parts. If a heart can be 3D-printed, then why not a kidney? A lung? A … brain?
Arguably the most complex, least understood organ in the human body, the brain is mission control for all human functions, skills, ideas and emotions.
And maybe we’re not so far from manufacturing one. Artificial intelligence (AI) is developing rapidly. Industries are investing in the science, anticipating that Al will transform the workplace, even if it takes over jobs done by us humans.
Not just assembly line work, computers are being taught to – heavens – write! A recent story in Slate described how an algorithm created by a London-based computer scientist can compose stunning poetry by stringing together related words.
So we could someday have man-made organs and man-made intelligence. How about a man-made body to carry it all?
In Russia, a strange experiment is under way at the state news channel Rossiya 24. A humanoid is being used as an anchorman.
Alex, as it’s called, is named for and looks like Alexei Yuzhakov, the co-founder of Promobot, the company that built the humanoid. The whole project is equal parts comical and unnerving, but according to the BBC, Promobot has orders for 12 more.
None of this is to suggest that we will be walking among robots someday soon, but what it means to be human could be changing. It was just 55 years ago when Jewish Hospital performed its first transplant, so what else about the body might be fixed, replaced or revised?
How will these changes affect the way we, live, breathe and … think? Will these changes alter our identities?
Will Judaism be ready for the Jew of the future?
The online forum Judaism and Science tackled these questions in a 2016 two-part story by Roger Price, “When a Jewdroid Walks into a Shul.” The topic was – wait for it – an articial Jew.
“How will the Jewish community react when an artificial entity is created that not only looks human, but is thoroughly versed in all things Jewish?” Price asked. “Will the Jewdroid’s presence be too much to bear or is Judaism’s tent big enough to hold him too? Shall we reject the Jewdroid whose existence is unprecedented or shall we welcome the stranger? What assumptions and values shall inform us?”
Price’s argument for the Jewdroid was thorough, though somewhat tortured. Possibly, he used the Jewdroid as a metaphor for Jews today who don’t meet the traditional standard for being called a Jew (born of a Jewish mother, circumcised, etc.)
But he also reminded us of the Maharal of Prague, the great rabbi who, in the 16th century, is said to have created an artificial being from clay – the Golem. That story at least shows that Judaism is not unfamiliar with the idea.
Agree or disagree, Price addressed the question of the “other” in Jewish life, which is vital. As medicine moves forward, people – including Jews – for reasons of war, terrorism, fire, five-car pileups, rare disease, could be revamped using 3D-printed organs, AI and other innovations on the horizon. Questions we can’t even imagine will arise.
Judaism must wrestle with these questions – now. Maybe Jewdroids aren’t coming, but the issues they pose are already here. Be it science or science fiction, Jewish ethics must keep pace withthe future.
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)