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The Vatican’s “Courtyard of the Gentiles” takes on artificial intelligence

Andreas Solaro | AFP
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The risk of leaving technology to its own devices

What impact does—and will—artificial intelligence have on humanity? Philosophers, scientists, and academics debated this question during a conference that took place recently at the Embassy of Italy to the Holy See, in Rome, as part of the “Courtyard of the Gentiles series of cultural events organized by the Vatican.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture (www.cultura.va), participated in the encounter and highlighted some of the new challenges that artificial intelligence brings:

The extraordinary capacities being given to machines may end up changing the human condition as we know it: Running, cooking, driving, reading, writing, composing, and even learning from experience are all activities that machines will be able to do autonomously. We must consider both the great possibilities that these advances open up, as well as the significant and very real risks.

– The risk of leaving technology to its own devices. Cardinal Ravasi explained that Pope Francis, in Laudato Sì, introduced the issue of the technocratic paradigm, in which—the pope explains—“those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources” to use the power given us by technology, have “an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used.”

Further, it is a paradigm that makes scientific progress a means to power and money, without much consideration for right or wrong. “We cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint,” Pope Francis warns. This is why, in Ravasi’s opinion, we must reflect on technology from within various disciplines and perspectives. “A true scientist is never just a technician … he’s someone who considers the entire panorama … in which we are immersed,” he emphasized.

Human intelligence came first. We should remember that other kinds of intelligence have been created by an original kind of intelligence: that of human beings. Ravasi questioned the meaning of the term “artificial intelligence,” and opened a debate on whether or not this concept is an oxymoron.

We’re not dealing with “personhood,” but with “reason.” Ravasi criticizes the term “electronic person.” In reality, he says, the concept of personhood isn’t applicable to artificial intelligence; “consciousness is still the prerogative of the human person, who is at the source of reason and thought.”

There have been “extraordinary and impressive” discoveries, above all in the field of health care: According to Fr. Benanti—who also participated in the Courtyard, and was cited by the cardinal in an interview with Vatican Radio—we need to highlight the usefulness and advantages of having artificial intelligence to manage health information, for purposes that will be very advantageous for humanity. However, there are two great risks: job loss, and the misuse of technology in a way that widens the distance between the rich and the poor. Or, could the use of technology reach the point of eliminating death, and, consequently, transforming the human condition? This question, closely related to the reflections of Cardinal Ravasi, was proposed by Alberto Cortina, author of the book Human, or Posthuman, published by Fragmenta.

When science progresses, it is irreversible, but we need to ask ourselves about the role of the conscience, which has always been considered a distinguishing characteristic of human beings, which makes them responsible for their own actions, able to distinguish between good and evil. An artificial brain capable of imitating human behavior is far from having authentic freedom, Ravasi explained, and he underlined that even the famous astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has warned against the unbridled use of technology.

 “Until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react because it seems so ethereal,” warned Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, in July, at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting. Musk insisted on the need to regulate artificial intelligence before “it’s too late.”

Who guarantees the ethical use of this technology? The cardinal brought up this question, and reiterated that it is necessary to bring together technology and humanistic areas of study, such as philosophy and theology. Technology cannot regulate itself. The world of humanities has an important role to play; philosophy, culture, theology, and religion all focus on studying the only true subject of freedom and responsibility, which is the human person.

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