We only see what we want to see. There’s so much of life that passes us by because we’re just unaware of it and miss signs to it. Partly this is due to our human limitations that cannot take in all the stimuli that’s presented to us and needs to filter out what’s either important to us or what’s necessary for our day to day living. But once something comes to our attention we tend to see it everywhere. I feel like this about artificial intelligence. I can’t say I didn’t know anything about it but I had relegated it to the confines of science fiction, much of which is rapidly coming true.
I first seriously faced the challenge of AI when I read Yuval Harari’s books, Sapiens and Homo Deus in which he outlines the revolutions Homo Sapiens has passed through in our evolution to be the most developed species in our world today. The challenge comes from the technological revolution that we are facing today. This could take us beyond who we are at the moment to develop into a new species that is trans-human. I first heard this word a few years ago when I heard a series of lectures by a Franciscan sister, Ilia Delio. Sr Ilia is a scientist who reflects theologically on new developments in science trying to show that science and religion are different languages with much in common and which are trying to find meaning in the same reality i.e. life as we know it today. In her short course she mentioned that scientists are talking about trans-humans and the word has niggled at me ever since. I wish now that I had asked her to expand on it but the moment passed and I didn’t do it. Now though I understand what she means, having read Harari and having become aware of the many articles and television programmes that are around about artificial intelligence and robots being built to resemble human beings and to think to the extent that they can win in a chess game with a grand master.
This is a new world which challenges many of the concepts of religion and raises the questions that have faced humanity since its birth: what does it mean to be human, what do we do with the possibilities and capabilities that are opening up to us, what is the purpose of life, where is God in all of this, is God’s purpose and plan for humanity that we should transcend our humanity to become cyborgs, what are the values that should drive these developments? There are fundamental questions that religion needs to reflect on, I think. And it’s happening.
Recently there was a symposium organised by the Pontifical Council for Culture on Science and Religion. The theme was “The Future of Humanity: New Challenges to Anthropology”. Presentations came from leading experts in the fields of medicine, genetics, neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Many of the development in these areas are good and beneficial and Pope Francis expressed his appreciation of science emphasising, as a person of faith would “this appreciation of the sciences finds its ultimate foundation in the plan of God, even if the Church has not always known how to express it” when he addressed participants at the end of the symposium. But what is this plan of God? For Pope Francis, as for Jesus and for the major religions of the world, well-being is at the heart of it – the well-being of humanity, of all sentient beings and of the very world and universe within which we live. The Pope said,” science like any other human activity has its limits which should be observed for the good of humanity itself and which requires a sense of ethical responsibility”.
This sense of putting the human person at the heart of new scientific developments is similar to the responses of others writing and responding to the challenge of current scientific developments. I believe this with my whole heart but we live in a world that is characterised by individualism, materialism and, it would seem to me, anything that can be developed is developed with no consideration of the consequences. How is the ethical voice to be heard? Where is the dialogue between science and ethics taking place in a way that will make a difference to our future? I ‘m not saying the dialogue between science and religion because there are many non-religious people (and scientists, I’m sure) who would have these same concerns and want scientific developments to be for the benefit of humanity. This is a dialogue which is wider than that between science and religion but one in which religion has something important to say.
But how is this to be done? One of the participants in the seminar, Eric Salobir OP, is reported to have captured the sentiments of the other participants when at the end of the second day he posed the crucial question: Do we have the collective capacity to steward the technologies?” And another participant, Mustafa Suleyman suggested that there’s a vacuum of a strong coherent ethical voice in the world in relation to the new technologies. “We urgently need a forum to have this conversation about who’s responsible for these machines. It’s important that we assert the imperative of meaningful human control over machines”, he said.
There’s a new dream and a new world emerging. Thank God religion is involved in considering it and that it’s coming to the attention of all of us. We’re surrounded by technologies and many of them are good but it’s important for us to remember that human beings are at the centre of it all and that personal contact and encounters can help humanise our world and our future