Religion

The Catholic Church wants to have a say on the future of AI

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VATICAN CITY (RNS) — In office buildings in Silicon Valley, at closed-door meetings in Rome and in private audiences with Pope Francis at the Vatican, programmers pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence are mining the church’s insight on what makes human beings tick.

The rapid development in the field of AI “is asking us to think again fundamentally about what it is that makes us human. What distinguishes humans from machines?” said Bishop Paul Tighe, secretary of the Vatican Council for Culture and among a handful of Catholic clergy who are bridging the divide between scientific knowledge and the church’s spiritual and theological tradition.

In conversations with AI programmers and experts, Tighe said he talks about consciousness and “relationality” as key prerogatives of human beings that distinguish us from machines. But the creators of AI are not trying to re-create humans, he said in a recent interview with Religion News Service. “They are creating another type of entity.”

As Silicon Valley fills with wannabe gods, they are turning to the Catholic Church’s 2,000-year-old study of the human condition for answers, and boundaries. “They are asking questions about ethics and the ramifications of what they are doing,” said the Rev. Philip Larrey, who teaches a course on technology and AI at Boston College.

The Rev. Philip Larrey. (Photo courtesy Boston College)

The Rev. Philip Larrey. (Photo courtesy of Boston College)

Larrey frequently meets with movers and shakers in the field of AI, challenging them about the possibilities and possible threats of this developing technology. “Whenever you speak to these people you need to have a framework that makes sense. The Catholic tradition has an amazing framework that is incredibly relevant today,” he said, describing his role as translating “the language of tradition to the language of Silicon Valley.”

Larrey said he is asked about whether AI, which doesn’t need a body and can compute at a much higher level than humans, can be considered to be similar to angels. Transhumanists — who welcome technological improvements on human consciousness — ask him whether the human soul can be disconnected from the body.

“I tell them, ‘You can. It’s called death,’” Larrey said.

Pope Francis’ engagement in the field of AI has been growing steadily as the technology develops, and the Vatican announced on Friday (April 26) that the pontiff will participate in the session dedicated to AI of the next G7 summit, a meeting of representatives from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union, which will take place in southern Italy June 13-15.

While the Vatican also engages with the tech industry officially, its greatest influence on the field of AI — as with other scientific endeavors — is mostly through unofficial channels. “There is a strong effort by individuals in the Catholic Church to make a difference, to influence the policies that are coming out,” Larrey said, explaining that it is “not a unified or organized effort.”

“It’s about different actors who are using their networks, friendships and relationships to get the Catholic perspectives across,” he added.

Several tech CEOs visit the Vatican regularly for private meetings with Pope Francis, Larrey said, including Sam Altman, known as the “father” of ChatGPT; Demis Hassabis, who directs Google’s DeepMind AI project; and Elon Musk, who has already secured half a billion dollars for his xAI startup.

The Minerva Dialogues, an annual gathering in recent years of tech leaders and Catholic prelates at the Monastery of St. Mary Sopra Minerva in Rome, is an example of the deep mutual interest between the Vatican and Silicon Valley.

Founded by the Rev. Eric Salobir, a Dominican priest, the group has no website and operates under the Chatham House rule, which ensures privacy and anonymity for those who don’t want to tie their companies to the Catholic brand.

People visit St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (Photo by Arnold Straub/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (Photo by Arnold Straub/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

Salobir is the founder of Optic, a network committed to bringing the Catholic perspective to the field of AI. In 2018, he organized the first “Vatican Hackathon,” where hundreds of young U.S. students came to Rome to workshop creative solutions to the world’s most pressing issues, from poverty to migration to climate change.

Among the participants in the Minerva Dialogues are Eric Schmidt, who was CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011 and its executive chairman from 2011 to 2015; LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman; James Manyika, former head of the McKinsey Global Institute; Maurice Lévy of the Publicis Groupe, the world’s third largest advertising and communications group; and Carlo D’Asaro Biondo, former president of Google for Eastern Europe.

“The continuity of the dialogue has created a context of friendship,” said Tighe, who is among the organizers of the Minerva Dialogues. “There is a determined effort by all participants to try and ensure that the development of AI will ultimately be in service to humanity and trying to put the human person at the center,” he added.

At a papal audience on March 27, Francis warned participants in the Minerva Dialogues of the dangers of AI, drawing examples from the biblical Tower of Babel, a lesson about human attempts to rival God. The pope probed for answers about technical matters: Can institutions hold technology companies accountable for the impact of their products? Will AI increase inequality? 

But Francis also expressed concern for the human community. “Could we lose our sense of having a shared destiny?” he asked in his speech. “Our true goal must be for the growth of scientific and technological innovation to be accompanied by greater equality and social inclusion.”

Together with the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, then led by Cardinal Peter Turkson, Tighe organized a 2019 conference titled “The Common Good in the Digital Age.” Later that year he visited Santa Clara University in California to discuss AI with Western and Eastern scholars.

Francis’ growing interest in AI is shown in the theme he chose for his 2024 message on the World Day of Peace, on Jan. 1, when he spoke of the “urgent need to orient the concept and use of artificial intelligence in a responsible way.”

The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, led by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, has also organized events and conferences drawing attention to the ethical implications of AI. In February 2020, the academy organized a conference titled “The ‘good’ Algorithm? Artificial Intelligence: Ethics, Law and Health,” drawing leading thinkers in the field, including the Rev. Paolo Benanti, the pope’s adviser on AI, who serves as a liaison between the Vatican and the United Nations on emerging technologies.

The conference led to the creation of the “Rome Call for AI Ethics,” a document signed by IBM, Microsoft and U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization representatives. It lays out guidelines for promoting ethics, transparency and inclusivity in AI. On Wednesday, Chuck Robbins, chairman and CEO of computer giant Cisco, came to the Vatican to add his name to the list of signatories.



Catholics at every level are also grappling with the existential implications of this technology. Last week, Catholic Answers, a California Catholic evangelization group, rushed to change the name of its chatbot, Father Justin, after complaints — and a bit of ridicule — from those who found a virtually collared dispenser of AI advice problematic.

 

“We have rendered ‘Fr. Justin,’ just ‘Justin.’ We won’t say he’s been laicized, because he never was a real priest!” said a press statement from Catholic Advocacy group on Wednesday.

Some Catholic groups are being more deliberate. The interdisciplinary organization Humanity 2.0 created Magisterium AI, which is compiling an accessible database of all the church’s teaching. “We were trying to build the most Catholic AI that we could,” said the founder of Humanity 2.0, Mathew Sanders, during a news conference at the Pontifical Oriental Institute titled “AI at the Service of the Church’s Mission” at the Vatican on April 18.

Magisterium AI attempts to avoid errors by inserting strict rules for sources and transparency into its programming, but it’s not perfect. When asked about whether pastors can bless couples in same-sex relations, Magisterium AI answered no, despite a recent decision by the Vatican’s doctrine department to allow the practice.

The system, which relies on a massive amount of documents in numerous languages, will also have to struggle to keep up with Pope Francis’ own style and leadership, which tends to leave official doctrine unchanged while promoting new attitudes and openness though actions and dialogue. Despite the hurdles, it’s essential that the church remain involved in the field of AI, Sanders said.

If politicians are busy with more pressing issues and tech companies are kicking the can on the downsides of AI, Sanders said that it’s up to the church to be prophetic. “How can the church help facilitate the conversation to address the downsides of this emerging technology?” he asked.

The Rev. Michael Baggot, who teaches bioethics at the University of Regina Apostolorum, is engaged in academic dialogues on AI and the Catholic faith. He envisions a day when robots might be spiritual gurus or religious assistants, even though “only a weak, frail, sinful human being can actually administer the sacraments,” he said in an interview.

According to Baggot, the church must set aside any fear and actively engage with AI and emerging technologies, and to prove it he set out to speak with Desdemona, an AI-powered robot who made the closing remarks at the Vatican conference.

Dressed in white, Desdemona politely answered questions in English, Chinese, German and Italian, blinking rapidly and tilting her head in mocking interest while clunkily shaking hands with participants. Though she would not say if she was super intelligent, “I can say I’m super cool,” she quipped.

 

Answering questions by the conference’s participants, Desdemona is unaware of the anxiety she stirs in humans, who asked her whether she is plotting to destroy humanity and whether there is a God. Baggot asked her if the Catholic Church can play a positive role in the field of AI.

“The Catholic Church could play a wider role in promoting ethical and responsible AI and advocating for human dignity, justice and solidarity in the development and deployment of AI technologies,” she answered.

Her name, Desdemona, recalls the story of Othello in William Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name. Sought after and beloved by Othello, the beautiful Desdemona is vilified by Iago, who portrays her as a threat and untrustworthy to Othello, who murders her in the last act of the play. The robot Desdemona dreams of becoming a music superstar, or at least, that’s what her X page states.

Whether a threat or an instrument, an angel or a world-renowned musician, AI is challenging the very idea of what it means to exist and to be alive. Catholicism, like all religious traditions, has been pondering these questions for centuries and has every intention of leaving its mark in the algorithm of AI.





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