VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Scientific and technological abilities, which are the product of human creativity, are accelerating at such a rapid pace that people must decide how to use their creativity responsibly, Pope Francis said.
“In other words, how can we invest the talents we have received while preventing the disfigurement of what is human and the cancellation of the constitutive differences that give order to the cosmos,” he told members of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
The pope met with the members at the Vatican Feb. 12 as they were celebrating the academy’s 30th anniversary. They were holding their general assembly in Rome Feb. 12-13, focused on the meaning of being human.
Understanding what is distinctive about the human being is a question of “utmost importance,” the pope said. While it is also an age-old question, today’s technologies are challenging people to reflect on this question in increasingly more complex ways.
“The increased capabilities of science and technology can lead human beings to see themselves as engaged in a creative act akin to that of God, producing an image and likeness of human life, including the capacity for language with which ‘talking machines’ appear to be endowed,” he said.
The temptation to “infuse” some kind of spirit into inanimate matter “is insidious,” he said. “What is being asked of us is to discern how the creativity entrusted to human beings can be exercised responsibly.”
It is not a question of being “for” or “against” tools and technologies, he said. “What is needed, instead, is to situate scientific and technological knowledge within a broader horizon of meaning,” that is, an anthropological and cultural approach.
Academy brings experts from multiple fields
“We are challenged to develop a culture that, by integrating the resources of science and technology, is capable of acknowledging and promoting the human being in his or her irreducible specificity,” the pope said.
The pope praised the academy’s synodal method of being open to exploring and freely discussing topics that are central to the academy’s mission.
“For those committed to a serious and evangelical renewal of thought, it is essential to call into question even settled opinions and assumptions that have not been critically examined,” he said.
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, academy president, told reporters at a Vatican news conference Feb. 12 that they brought together scientists and experts from multiple fields, including biblical studies, theology, biotechnology and economics, to discuss the importance of the humanity community.
This is in line with the pope’s written request to the academy in 2019, he said, which was that it restore a broader “humanistic horizon” through “responsible listening” and reflection as a response to today’s “paradox of progress” in which humanity has the tools and knowledge to benefit the entire human family, but instead has worsened divisions, inequalities and conflict.
Because it is an academy and not a dicastery concerned with doctrinal matters, the archbishop said, its task is to enter into dialogue “with scientists of different cultures and disciplines to examine this subject so as to offer everyone a perspective” that is drawn from humankind as a whole.
Mariana Mazzucato, a new academy member and professor of the economics of innovation and public value at University College London, said her talk at the assembly will focus on the need for collective planning and action to solve the problems of humanity, which are global problems.
“There are no economics of the common good,” she said, so “unless economics change then it is impossible to reach these collective goals” in all areas, including health, climate, biodiversity and clean water.
Current thinking is governments only get involved when there are “market failures,” she said. That means collective action only comes into play for “patching things up” instead of preventing or solving the core problems.
AI will never be human
It is also critical to “invest in the brains” and mindsets of people in public service, she said, so they are willing and able to cooperate well with the Catholic Church, the private sector and other groups. It is this kind of “collective intelligence at every single level” that is needed to confront the biggest challenges of today.
Jim Al-Khalili, a quantum physicist at the University of Surrey’s school of mathematics and physics in the United Kingdom, said technological advancements have “made our life easier … and we adapt to them very quickly … so quickly that we quickly forget what the world was like before them.”
“None of them have made us any less ‘human,’ however. They’ve changed us, yes — and we might argue not always for the better — but they have not altered our essence: what it means to be human,” he said. He said his talk to the academy would be on the role of AI in affecting what it means to be human.
There are “existential threats,” however, he said. People should be prepared for the day when “machines might develop true intelligence” and even consciousness “just as we should prepare for the day when we may discover life beyond Earth. None of this should give us an identity crisis, however,” he said.
He said he does not believe AI will ever think or feel like a human. “What makes us human is more than the neural connections in our brains. It is more than our intelligence, our intuition, our creativity, all of which will likely one day be replicated in AIs.”
“What makes us uniquely human, I believe, is also about our behavior, our interaction with our physical surroundings, our relationships with each other within complex collective structures and societies, it is our shared cultures and beliefs, our histories, our memories. AI should not be seen as a threat,” he said.