Pope Francis and Artificial Intelligence

Pope against the machineWhen Pope Francis delivered a message for the World Day of Social Communications, he focused on Artificial Intelligence. The topic clearly preoccupies him, having previously discussed it in his message for the World Day of Peace. There, he reflected on the place that Artificial Intelligence has in war-making and the place it could have in peace-making. He also suggested that the Congregation of the Faith bring it into their discussion of pressing ethical concerns.

Over recent months, the issues posed by the development of Artificial Intelligence have become clearer. They bear on many large questions facing society. The distribution of falsified images of people in the news and false opinions assigned to them, for example, raises questions about truth in a society that relies on images more than on words in making judgements. If seeing isn’t believing, what else if anything could command believing?

The rapid use of artificial intelligence in producing images and providing articles at a time when the mainstream media are under pressure to cut staff also raises questions about the future employment of people in many areas of work. Certainly the gap in living standards between those with education and skills and those without will grow. This raises questions about the effects of growing inequality. If people do not have a stake in society why should we expect them to respect it?

The growing use of AI in warfare through drones, identifying people by AI and killing them without any human oversight evades ownership for the destruction of human lives. It raises questions about the value of any of us. Do we have a duty of care to one another because we are all human beings, or more narrowly to those who happen to be on our side?

Finally, the experiments in connecting the human brain to computers in the hope of radically enlarged intelligence raise questions about the distinctive and unchangeable value of humanity and the conditions for human flourishing. If we human beings are underdeveloped computers what would be lost if we were disappeared?

The weight of these questions and of what may be entailed in getting the answers wrong can be overwhelming. Pope Francis, however, counsels against despair. ‘Before all else, we need to set aside catastrophic predictions and their numbing effects’. He sees these as human questions that can be worked through with human intelligence. Like any other technology, AI must be seen primarily as a tool used to help human intelligence. It is not identical with it. Nor can it replace the reflection and judgement proper to human intelligence.

Pope Francis insists that to respond to human questions we must bring the wisdom of the heart. This refers to the deep place of freedom in our lives in which thought and feeling and our multiple relationships to the world are weighed and find issue in judgement and choice. Human intelligence is more than the collection and correlation of data and the solving of technical problems that AI can offer. AI is a good instrument, but it cannot make human sense of the data it collects.

To take the path of wisdom commits us to reflect on how to use it for the good of humanity, and not to allow its use to distort our relationships to others and to the world. Still less should we see it as beyond our control. If we are to use it well, however, it will require large growth in our humanity expressed in complex and harmonious social relationships. These will be marked by compassion and by reflection on shared experience. The truth of the absurdity of war, for example, is most truly conveyed by the human experience of reporters who are exposed to it, not by AI analyses of warfare.

‘To take the path of wisdom commits us to reflect on how to use it for the good of humanity, and not to allow its use to distort our relationships to others and to the world.’

Ultimately, the growth of AI challenges us to grow in wisdom and freedom. We can choose to be reduced to algorithms manipulated to serve others’ hidden interests or to grow in the ability to be discerning in seeking truth and goodness through human communication. This entails the qualitative leap required in order to become a complex, multi-ethnic, pluralistic, multi-religious and multicultural society. Only then can we reflect together carefully on the prospective development and the practical use of these new instruments of communication and knowledge.

Seen from that perspective, the development of artificial intelligence presents risks of diminishing human life and opportunities to enhance it. It can drown us in information, present biased accounts of the world and make us sceptical about the search for truth. It can be used to manipulate people in order to amass wealth, deny responsibility, or consolidate power. It can also be used, however, to illuminate our world, clarify our decisions, strengthen our commitment to truth, free us from manipulation, and build relationships based not on power but on commitment to the common good.

In the light of this reflection, Pope Francis poses a wide range of questions raised by Artificial Intelligence. They include how to regulate its development and use in order to avoid the manipulation of truth, the centralisation of wealth and power, and experimentation on human beings that regards them as machines.

In his portrayal of AI, Pope Francis encourages us to value our humanity and with confidence to take ownership of the tools that we make for the betterment of our lives and not for our enslavement. He offers no magic solutions to the questions it raises but a humane way of responding to them.


AI image of Pope Francis
Images of the pope wearing a white puffy jacket have gone viral online. They’re AI-generated but show how difficult it will be to distinguish fakes from reality in the future.


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