“Understanding what qualifies a human being” is a question “of the utmost importance,” Pope Francis told the members of the Pontifical Academy for Life on February 12, 2024, who are gathered in Rome until February 13 for their General Assembly. Titled “Human: meanings and challenges,” the assembly focuses on what is the essence of humanity and how to work for the common good in the midst of rapid technological developments, such as artificial intelligence.
What it means to be human “is an old and ever new question, which the amazing resources possible through new technologies are re-proposing in an even more complex form,” the Pope said.
In his speech the Pontiff encouraged the academics to fight the “technocratic hegemony” and “the drift toward a single-way thinking,’” while also researching with a “freedom of spirit.”
Human progress and machines
The Pope highlighted that academics help us understand that it is “not possible to be a priori ‘for’ or ‘against’ machines and technologies.” He emphasized in fact that there is no clear “distinction between natural and artificial processes, regarding the former as authentically human and the latter as alien or even contrary to the human.”
Rather the Pope called for society to place “scientific and technological knowledge” in “a broader horizon of meaning” in order to fight the “technocratic hegemony.”
The Pope also explained how “the growing capabilities of science and technology lead human beings to feel that they are the protagonists of a creative act akin to the divine one,” referring to for example how machines can imitate language.
Francis warned his audience against the “insidious temptation” of believing the man has “the power […] to infuse spirit into inanimate matter.”
He also criticized “the attempt to reproduce humans by the means and logic of technology,” saying that this approach reduces and flattens human beings to an easily codified digital language. He instead called for humans not to be “disfigured” as there should be “a culture that, integrating the resources of science and technology, is capable of recognizing and promoting the human in its unrepeatable specificity.”
This includes “the sphere of pathos and emotion, desire and intentionality, which only a human being can recognize,” as opposed to a machine, he explained.
Lastly, the Pope encouraged the academics present to have a “demanding style of research” marked by “attention and freedom of spirit, openness to venture into unexplored and unknown paths, freeing oneself from all sterile ‘go-backward-isms.'”
“For those who engage in serious and evangelical renewal of thought, it is imperative to question even acquired opinions and assumptions that have not been critically examined.”
The objective of the general assembly
“This conference is dedicated to promoting co-responsibility so that these new emerging and converging technologies are human-driven for the common good, and not, for example, to promote new injustices,” Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, told Aleteia in a press conference at the Vatican presenting the general assembly.
“The Church, precisely because it has in its DNA […] to be a sign and instrument of the unity of humankind, […] feels it is its duty to prevent humankind from being marred by technological mechanisms,” he explained.
At the press conference, Arhcbishop Paglia was also joined by two academics who gave speeches during the general assembly: the first is a member of the Pontifical Academy, economist Mariana Mazzucato, who spoke about “governing the economy for the common good,” and the second is physicist Jim Al-Khalili, who spoke about science and AI.
During the press conference, Archbishop Paglia highlighted that the Academy is not a “dicastery of doctrine” and does not produce magisterial texts. Rather he explained it is called to dialogue, debate, and deepen subjects, with “scientists of different cultures and disciplines.”