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AI and the Meaning of Life: The Tech Industry Turns to Religious Leaders


VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The people behind chatbots are asking questions of priests and ethicists rather than turning to their artificially intelligent creations. They want to know: what is consciousness? What is the nature of humanity? What is the purpose of life?

According to Father Phillip Larrey, dean of the philosophy department at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, technicians in Silicon Valley are asking these questions of ethicists and religious leaders as artificial intelligence develops rapidly and is used in multiple ways. ways that impact people’s daily lives.

In a conversation with Catholic News Service on March 21, Father Larrey, a native of Mountain View, Calif., and author of two books on the rise of AI, reflected on how society should engage with the AI as it increasingly integrates into the lives of ordinary people through accessible technologies.

AI-powered programs such as ChatGPT, popular software created by software company OpenAI, “can access data to an enormous extent that is no longer possible for human beings,” Fr. Larrey said. “That’s why, as a species, we tend to look at AI with some fear, because we fear the unknown.”

An artificially intelligent chatbot, ChatGPT uses learning algorithms to consume, produce and infer information for human users. The software is intended to imitate human conversation and can instantly produce essays and articles, write programming code, and give advice to people based on information entered by users.

Its most sophisticated model, GPT4, was released to the public on March 14.

Father Larrey said there are several “catastrophic risks” to unchecked and widespread use of AI, such as its potential to spread misinformation and create code that can be used by hackers.

He also identified potential adverse effects of AI for everyday users, noting that minors may seek advice from chatbots to commit illicit activities and students may use them to complete assignments without doing the learning work. .

ChatGPT, an artificially intelligent chatbot created by OpenAI, generates a response to a question posed by Catholic News Service in Rome on March 23, 2023. (CNS screengrab/Chat.OpenAI.com)

A major downside of AI, he said, is that “we become dependent on the software and we become lazy. We no longer think for ourselves, we look to the machine.

Still, Father Larrey said dismissing AI technology is wrong. In particular, he pointed to the decision of some universities to ban the use of ChatGPT, noting that educators “are going to have to learn to integrate this into how they teach, what they test and how we can use these tools. for our benefit.

“I don’t think you can put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. “The market motivation is so strong that you are not going to stop it.”

In January, Microsoft announced a multi-year investment in OpenAI, which the New York Times and other media reported would total $10 billion. Other tech companies, including Google and Amazon, are testing their own AI-powered products to compete with existing software on the market.

That’s why Fr. Larrey said conversations about AI need to shift to what Pope Francis calls “person-centered AI.” The pope, he said, “insists that you have to put the human person at the center of this technology.”

In January, Pope Francis addressed tech industry executives from companies including Microsoft and IBM as well as members of the Jewish and Muslim communities at a conference on AI ethics at the Vatican. .

The pope urged them to “ensure that the discriminatory use of these instruments does not take root to the detriment of the most fragile and excluded” and gave an example of AI making visa decisions for visa applicants. asylum on the basis of generalized data.

“It is not acceptable that the decision about someone’s life and future should be entrusted to an algorithm,” the pope said.

At the end of the conference, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim representatives signed a statement calling on AI researchers to engage with ethicists and religious leaders to develop a framework for the ethical use of AI.

“On social media and other technologies that came in very quickly, we were trying to catch up and we didn’t know exactly how to do that,” Fr. Larrey said.

But with AI, he said, tech companies themselves are “starting to think about how to structure certain guidelines and concerns so that this technology is used for human well-being and flourishing.” .

Tech companies such as Microsoft are “looking for philosophers and theologians” to answer these questions, he said. “They are looking for people who can think.”

“These people, who are really changing the future of humanity, they want to talk with us, they want to talk with priests, they especially want to talk with Pope Francis,” he said. “They are looking for advice and they are looking for support. They’re looking for a way to make it help people and not hurt people.

Some of those guidelines, he noted, include adding parental controls to technology so parents can monitor how their children use AI-powered devices, or establishing structures so that human decision-making is not left out of the equation when AI is also used. , such as when making a judicial decision using generalized data.

Aware of the challenges that AI poses to society, Father Larrey said he was always optimistic that people can use AI responsibly and for the good of humanity if developed correctly.

“I think people are going to win on technology,” he said. “It is not without perils, it is not without difficulties.”

And within the church, Father Larrey said he believed “the priests will be one of the last to be replaced (by the AI), even though they have AIs who will hear your confession and celebrate Mass”.

“People want to talk with a priest or a nun, they want the experience of the religious person that they can’t get in an AI,” he said.

Robert Duncan in Rome contributed to this story.


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Copyright © 2023 Catholic News Service/United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

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