Touro University: unpacking the benefits and risks of AI


Everybody knows that AI will take away everybody’s jobs, transform the economy in unimaginable and undesirable ways, and eventually kill all of us. Of course, everybody’s probably wrong about all of those things, so the question arises: What are the real promises and perils of AI? And how do we separate fact from fiction, especially in higher education?

Touro University, with campuses in New York, California, Nevada, Montana, and Berlin, as well as Jerusalem, and a student population of over 18,000, recently announced the creation of a new position, Associate Provost for Artificial Intelligence, so that the school could get a handle on what AI is really about. The new associate provost, Dr. Shlomo Argamon, trained at Carnegie-Mellon, Yale, and the University of Chicago and is a past Fulbright fellow. He has spent 30 years digging into AI and related fields.

“Touro created my position,” Argamon says, “so that we can use AI and data analytics to understand better what’s going on with our students and our operations. Can we conceive of AI systems that give personalized homework assignments to students so they get personalized feedback? We’re talking about creating an AI-powered university.”

Argamon says that the goal is not just to deal with AI in its current form but also as it will be a decade hence.

“We want to teach our students to be agile, to be critical thinkers, to be growth-oriented,” he says. “We want to teach the modes of thinking, not just the technologies. A lot of the fears are overblown. It may be that AI is going to kill us all, but not any time soon! These systems lack the fundamental capabilities of being intelligent agents acting in the world. They can do some pretty amazing things, but they also mess up on a lot of stuff. They can’t really plan. In fact, they have no common sense whatsoever.

DR. SHLOMO ARGAMON, associate provost for artificial intelligence. (credit: Courtesy Touro University)

AI and our future

“AI has no concept of reality at all. AI simply makes things up. It has no concept of what’s true and what’s false. When it gets things wrong, it’s making things up; and when it gets things right, it’s making things up. This means that you can’t trust it one bit. So we want to know how our students can deal with something like that.”

Since Touro is a Jewish university, it makes sense that part of Argamon’s responsibilities are to learn how AI will affect Torah study.

“As we learn to use AI more effectively,” Argamon says, “it’s going to affect Torah learning the same way the revolution in computerized databases has affected it. I started out my academic career after my doctorate at Bar-Ilan University, where we digitized and made accessible huge swaths of halachic [Jewish legal] literature. This was a revolution in how research was undertaken. After a certain point in time, nobody could publish a serious Halacha sefer [book on Jewish law] without consulting the database.

“Before long, AI will give us the possibility of not just accessing the raw text but also finding connections between things we may not have been aware of. In Talmud study, a learning partner is called a hevruta. AI will be a quasi-hevruta that has no real understanding of concepts but has knowledge, so to speak, of everything!

“We’ve recently seen situations where AI has invented cases to support positions in legal briefs. The same thing could happen with the study of Jewish law. So we’ve got to watch out for those kinds of issues. On the other hand, AI can be very helpful in terms of contributing to discussions on ethics in the economy, labor relations, copyright, and self-driving cars.

“Philosophers talk about the ‘trolley problem’ – a trolley conductor must choose between killing one person and killing many people, depending on the route he chooses to deal with a likely accident. Can AI help us think through that problem? It’s an increasingly real issue as self-driving cars become more of a reality.”

Argamon says that all of higher education, in the United States and across the world, has reached an inflection point, of which AI is just one aspect.

“You could say higher education is in crisis,” he argues. You’ve got the affordability issue, the antisemitism crisis, the wokeness issue. AI is one more topic that our institutions of higher learning will have to confront.

“That’s why I’m so happy to take on this role at Touro because perhaps we can point the way for other schools.” 

The writer, a New York Times bestselling author, runs, a book ghostwriting firm.

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