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The lowdown on high-jumping robotic locusts and high-tech Judaism

Tel Aviv University's robotic locust. Credit: Courtesy American Friends of Tel Aviv University.
Tel Aviv University's robotic locust. Credit: Courtesy American Friends of Tel Aviv University.

This is not your bible’s eighth plague. Passover story, welcome to the 21st century—and meet the robotic locusts.

Exodus 10:13-15 states, “So Moses stretched out his staff over Egypt, and the Lord made an east wind blow across the land all that day and all that night. By morning the wind had brought the locusts; they invaded all Egypt and settled down in every area of the country in great numbers. Never before had there been such a plague of locusts, nor will there ever be again. They covered all the ground until it was black. They devoured all that was left after the hail—everything growing in the fields and the fruit on the trees. Nothing green remained on tree or plant in all the land of Egypt.”

Imagine Moses’s surprise if he knew that generations later, his descendants would invent a small machine that, in nearly every detail, is a dead ringer for the kind of locust that devoured everything left standing in Egypt after the hail (seventh plague of 10) had done its damage.

From conception to birth, the new robot—announced in January—was a collaborative affair. Prof. Amir Ayali of the Department of Zoology at Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) Faculty of Life Sciences teamed up to create it with Dr. Gabor Kosa of TAU’s Faculty of Engineering and Dr. Uri Ben-Hanan of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at ORT Braude College in Karmiel, Israel.

The body of the bio-inspired robot, nicknamed “TAUB” (for Tel Aviv University and Ort Braude College) was produced by a 3D printer using the same plastic Legos are made of. Its legs are fashioned of carbon rods, its springs of steel wire. A single lithium battery can power up to 1,000 jumps of more than 11 feet (unlike drones, they say, which have limited time in the air). And with its energy efficiency, it can reach up to 1,000 jumps with only one battery loading. Remarkably despite its power, TAUB weighs less than an ounce and measures a mere four inches long. It is also easy and cheap to produce, projected to cost around $100.

But the robotic locust is not a parlor trick. TAUB is designed to play an important role in everything from surveillance to entering dangerous places humans should avoid, such as toxic oil spills.

No one should be surprised that this puny-but-powerful new robot is from Israel. This tiny Mideast country with the highest per-capita rate of medical patents in the world is the source of countless life-changing inventions, including much our cell phone technology, Intel processors, USB flash drivers, electric car and firewall technologies, drip irrigation, the pill video camera, community-based navigation (Waze), and the lifesaving Iron Dome missile defense system.

Indeed, technology—regardless of its origins—continues to enhance not only security and the quality of life around the world, but Jewish practice as well. Consider Shabbat elevators, Shabbat wheelchairs, Shabbat ovens, and even DNA testing, the latter of which has interesting things to add to the discussion of who is a Jew, tracing the regional roots of a Jewish family, and determining which genetic diseases pose a risk to a Jewish couple’s offspring. Not to mention the elephant in the room: the Internet, which has spawned such game-changers as online matchmaking services as well as long-distance Jewish learning and High Holiday services.

“Technology has virtually erased the borders that separate us,” says Rabbi Jason Miller, owner of Access Computer Technology in Detroit and a popular blogger on the convergence of technology and Judaism. “Now you can live anywhere and order matzo on, Skype into your nephew’s bris in Brooklyn from your living room in Iowa, and discover new Passover recipes and songs from Jewish communities thousands of miles away.”

Rabbi David Aaron, dean of Isralight—a provider of “innovative educational solutions that empower Jews to experience the relevance, wisdom, and joy of Jewish living”—agrees that “technology is taking us more and more beyond the limitations of time and space, which divides us. It allows us to connect in amazing ways.”

In fact, like countless other contemporary commentators, Aaron and his colleagues greatly extend Isralight’s reach to the thousands who regularly visit its website or receive its weekly “Sparks” or “Small Tastings” email distributions. The emails carry words and ideas that travel vast distances from Isralight’s Jerusalem headquarters. Yet the rabbi warns that we should be cautious about the convenience of the Internet.

“The technical connection could become a substitute for real relationship,” he says.

Miller also acknowledges the dangers of technical connecting, chief among them isolation.

“Nothing is perfect,” he says. “[The ability to communicate virtually] is maybe 92-percent positive, but there is a dark side when someone only connects when he’s on his computer sitting in his basement, because there is something powerful and very Jewish about the concept of a minyan, of physically being together.”

In her 2015 book, “Digital Judaism: Jewish Negotiations with Digital Media and Culture,” Heidi Campbell takes an analytical view of the impact technology has on Jewish life.

“People think that religious people reject technology but we found otherwise,” she writes. “As each monotheistic religion goes through its own negotiation between religious law and tradition and modernity, each one decides what is comfortable to its particular culture.”

An example: Jews who needed to ride up many floors invented the “Shabbat elevator,” which automatically stops on each floor, to resolve the tension between law and necessity. What’s unique about Jewish life in modern times, Campbell argues, is the emerging technology Jews tend to adopt.

“These are mostly those [technologies] that embrace and protect life,” she notes. Included in this category are advances such as artificial insemination, which was rejected by many forms of Christianity. Though some haredi Jews eschew computers, most segments of the Jewish world have employed pioneering techniques in spreading Jewish learning through the Web, an approach Campbell calls “innovative and embracing.”

And many a creative compromise has been struck, she adds.

“Rabbis who understood how important cell phones are these days worked with the cell phone companies to restrict access, creating together the technology within tradition now known as the kosher phone,” writes Campbell.

The tech revolution—robotic locusts included—shows no sign of relinquishing its hold on Jewish life. Next up, Miller predicts, is virtual and augmented reality. This means that very soon, when Jewish law confines someone to their own home while they recite the kaddish prayer during shiva (the first week of mourning for an immediate family member), that person will be able to feel as if he or she is standing in the middle of the brick-and-mortar minyan a few miles away, seeing 360 degrees all around to take in everyone and everything there.

But is that mourner, while observing virtually, counted as part of the minyan?

“We may need to take another look at the halacha (Jewish law),” says Miller. “Judaism has always been a fluid religion that grows with the times. It’s going to be very interesting.”

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