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Is Artificial Intelligence human?


Last week two apparently unrelated events took place. The senior researcher into Artificial Intelligence at Google in the United States resigned, and Pope Francis addressed an Academy of Science and Culture in Hungary. The link between them was that both men shared concern about the dangers of unrestricted technological development and the need for informed conversation in society about the benefits and risks for society of technology.

At the heart of this issue is what is involved in Human Intelligence, and so what uses of mind should be privileged in society. In his address, Pope Francis returned to the way in which the question was posed by earlier Catholic writers, particularly by the Italian priest Romano Guardini in his reflective Letters from Como and by the English Catholic convert Robert Hugh Benson in his dystopian novel, Lord of the World. Benson, writing in 1907, depicted a world divided into mutually hostile blocs turning its back on conservative values and faith and embracing progressive ideas in a way that led to the destruction both of world and of the Catholic Church.

Guardini wrote his letters that reflected on cultural change in the world during 1924 when staying in a place of great natural beauty, Lake Como. As a stretcher bearer during the First World War he had seen the human effects of the technologies developed during war. He had also noticed the social change brought about by the Russian Revolution and its effect on people. He was grappling, too, with the ascent to power in Italy of Benito Mussolini two years earlier. He had seen the end of the culture lamented by Benson and the beginnings of a culture and public attitudes dominated by technology. He reflected on what to make of this. Unlike Benson he sought ways of responding positively to the change.

In his speech Pope Francis quotes Guardini’s  contrast between two ways of using mind.

As he (Guardini) put it:


'I have come to realise so clearly these days that there are two ways of knowing. The one sinks into a thing and its context. The aim is to penetrate, to move within, to live with. The other, however, unpacks, tears apart, arranges in compartments, takes over and rules.'


Guardini distinguished between a gentle, relational knowledge and mastery, which he described as 'rule by service, creation out of natural possibilities, which does not transgress set limits,' and another way of knowing, which 'does not inspect; it analyses. It does not construct a picture of the world, but a formula… a law that can be formulated rationally.'

Although Guardini had eased into the first way of thinking in the rural beauty of Lake Como, he did not see technological thinking as hostile. It was a central and beneficial part of culture. The risk was that it would dominate culture as the decisive and ultimately only significant use of mind and so impoverish human life and culture. Pope Francis quotes Guardini’s concern:


'What will become of life if it is delivered up to the power of this dominion?… What will happen when we become subject to the imperatives of technology? A system of machines is engulfing life… Can life retain its living character in this system?'


In instantiating the ways in which human life has been subjected to technology, Pope Francis refers to human ecology: the relationships between body and mind, flesh and spirit, persons and society, persons and the environment of which they are part. When these relationships are fractured by regarding persons as individuals disconnected with society, sovereign over their environment, and valued for their material power and prosperity, the result is a diminished humanity, an unequal society and a miserable and unfree people enslaved by an apparently uncontrolled but unjustly rigged economy. The emblem and fruit of these fractured relationships is the climate crisis.

Pope Francis looks for a balanced way of thinking in which the technological thinking is set within wonder and within open questioning and shaping of culture that is not dominated by economic considerations. He sees this embodied in the ideal of the university as a community of scholars characterised by curiosity, the pursuit of truth and by self-knowledge.


'Although both men recognise the potential for harm in technology, neither Guardini nor Pope Francis yield to despair. Both retain hope in the power of human longing for what is true and genuine, and in the consequent resistance to settlements that fail to honour human dignity, sociality and responsibility.'


Such a university would be a natural home for conversation about the human benefits and costs of the development of artificial intelligence and whether it serves the common good. In practice, however, universities also echo current ideologies. The criterion of their funding by governments is the economic contribution of its research. The search for knowledge as a human good is not honoured. Nor is the ideal of a university and of learning proposed by Pope Francis generally accepted within universities. Technological development, in any case, is not centred in the universities but in commercial institutions like Google and Meta, which both propagate and defend the cultural assumption that all technical development is inevitable and will benefit human beings. Any negative effects of in this homage to progress can be remedied by further similarly profitable technological developments.

This cultural context of the development of Artificial Intelligence lends urgency to Guardini’s anguished question about the consequences of the dominion of technology. It is not allayed by the initial response to Artificial Intelligence of regulatory bodies in the United States and Great Britain. Both see it in purely economic terms, the latter in terms of its effect on competition and the former in its effects on employment and other economic criteria. Its deeper and broader effects on human life and on society are not seen as determinative. In Guardini’s framing, the conversation will take place entirely under the terms of the dominion of technology and its profit-seeking masters.

The possible consequences of this are daunting. The immediate concern is whether the uncontrolled use of Artificial Intelligence will make obsolete any assumptions about the connection between communication and truth. Its potential, however, is greater than that. In Guardini’s terms, technological knowledge, with its ability to sort and grade information based on recorded experience, has the capacity to supplant human knowledge in judicial processes, in policy making, in medical treatment, in political systems and ultimately in human beings’ understanding of themselves.

Although both men recognise the potential for harm in technology, neither Guardini nor Pope Francis yield to despair. Both retain hope in the power of human longing for what is true and genuine, and in the consequent resistance to settlements that fail to honour human dignity, sociality and responsibility. It is already time to join that resistance movement. 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Close up of a mother and kid's hand touching illuminated and multi-coloured LED display screen. (Getty images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, AI, Humanity, ChatGPT, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

Perhaps it’s the powerful creativity that arises out of an acute imbalance between chaos and order that is lacking in Artificial Intelligences. Without that, they can never speak to the longings of the human heart. Only the flesh that holds the spark of the Divine can do that. We must resist thoughtless dependence on idols, graven or not.

Joan Seymour | 11 May 2023  

The fact that we now pose the question 'Is Artificial Intelligence human?" underlines the new ethical landscape confronting us in this millennium.
I wonder if we'll be turning to ChatGTP for answers to the moral questions our increasingly computer-dependent age raises?

John RD | 14 May 2023  

Of course it's human, or to be more precise, it's a product of humans. Just like steam engines and printing presses, books and Wikipedia, shock-jocks and search engines, radio and loud hailers. There is nothing magical or supernatural about any of them. AI is different only in its scale and complexity. Like all of them, AI is capable of being used for good or ill, to inform or disinform. Like all of them, its misuse can be monetised or corrupting. It is this that we should be resisting and, as Andrew says, it's already time to legislate and regulate.

Ginger Meggs | 25 May 2023  

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