Artificial intelligence, or “AI,” has been in the news for years. But there seems to be a growing consensus in recent months that we are crossing an important threshold in our relationship with technology.
Something is happening that goes beyond the sensational headlines about “deepfake” images of Taylor Swift and the robocall that used an apparently AI-generated voice mimicking Joe Biden to tell Democrats to sit out the Jan. 23 New Hampshire presidential primary.
Our Church, too, recognizes that a transformative shift is underway.
Pope Francis has been talking about the possible benefits and dangers of AI for several years, drawing particular attention to the need for corporate and world leaders to proactively direct the rapidly improving technology in the service of peace, the poor, and the safeguarding of human rights.
Last April, soon after AI images of him wearing a ridiculous-looking papal-white Balenciaga puffer jacket went viral, the Holy Father gave an address urging AI developers “to act ethically and responsibly.” To that end, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education partnered with the Institute for Technology, Ethics and Culture at Santa Clara University in California to publish a 140-page handbook in July titled “Ethics in the Age of Disruptive Technologies: An Operational Roadmap” aimed at corporate executives.
More recently, in a message released in December ahead of the Jan. 1 World Day for Peace, Pope Francis called for a legally binding international treaty to regulate artificial intelligence, and he revisited many of these same themes in his Jan. 24 address in observance of this year’s World Day of Social Communications.
We might ask ourselves: Why is Pope Francis so focused on AI? And why should anyone listen to what the Church has to say on this issue?
First, it’s important to know that the Church isn’t opposed to technological advancement, nor are the Pope’s words an ill-informed overreaction to human progress. Instead, his views reflect the fact that the Church has very definite — and different — ideas about the meaning of “human” and “progress.”
The Church honors humanity as God’s masterwork, imbued with an immortal soul and inherent dignity, for we are made in the image and likeness of the Creator himself (Genesis 1:26). For this reason, while they may be able to perform certain complex functions faster and more efficiently, no machine will ever match genuine human creativity.
The Church views progress in the context of this reality; it’s about promoting the betterment of mankind and creating the societal conditions that promote human flourishing, not solely about increasing a business’ bottom line.
“Technological developments that do not lead to an improvement in the quality of life of all humanity,” he added, “but on the contrary aggravate inequalities and conflicts, can never count as true progress.”
Second, for centuries, the Catholic Church has been the preeminent patron of the arts. So many of history’s greatest works of art, including music, painting, sculpture and architecture were commissioned by the Church. The Church’s authority on the arts means that it has a great deal of wisdom to offer the world when it comes to the proper understanding of creativity and beauty.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes art as a “distinctively human form of expression,” adding that art is “not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man,” which is God.
Throughout history, humanity’s God-given creative genius has been made manifest in ever new and more astonishing ways. Today, one example of this is the host of AI text-to-image generators widely available online that allow users to enter a text prompt, similar to a Google search, to create digital images in seconds or minutes.
These mesmerizing tools raise a host of thorny legal and ethical questions, especially for those of us in the news media. The ease with which truth can be distorted and manipulated is indeed concerning.
This technology also is sparking a fierce debate about whether these images, even some visually striking renderings of Jesus, the Blessed Mother and the saints, can rightly be called “art.”
It’s true that it takes a certain amount of skill with nuanced AI prompts to shape and perfect high-quality images. The more amateurish attempts often come out looking quite strange, even creepy, with extra fingers and other distortions.
These are technical glitches that will get fixed soon enough since, by definition, AI machines can learn from their mistakes. Rest assured, they’re getting better, and smarter, every day.
But there’s a certain … coldness to many of the AI images I’ve seen, even the good ones. It doesn’t take a lot of artificial intelligence to know that something crucial is missing.
It’s the human heart.
Pope Francis touched on this point in his Jan. 24 message, emphasizing that the human heart is the “inward place of our encounter with God.” It’s also the repository of the Holy Spirit’s gift of wisdom, which the Pope said “enables us to look at things with God’s eyes, to see connections, situations, events and to uncover their real meaning.”
“Such wisdom,” he noted, “cannot be sought from machines.”
Something else worth mentioning: Our world doesn’t need AI art; at least not in the same way it hungers for authentic, exceptional art, created by real artists inspired to search for and express truth.
“Society needs artists, just as it needs scientists, technicians, workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” noting that “true art has a close affinity with the world of faith.”
Father Joshua Caswell, superior general of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius and a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Art Institute, recently told the Register that fine art is “a profound offering to God, where artists dedicate their work as both a gift and a sacrificial act.”
He added, “In contrast, AI art lacks this sacrificial dimension, even if it possesses aesthetic beauty. Similar to how the Word becomes flesh, real fine art materializes into something tangible, always preserving the human touch.”
So, should Catholics steer clear of AI? No. Even if that were possible, it’s not practical. Like the internet and smartphones and countless other technological innovations, how we use — or misuse — AI is up to us.
But at the dawn of this new age of artificial intelligence, I might suggest doubling down on the non-artificial kind.
Visit an art gallery. Go to an opera or listen to a symphony orchestra. Read the works of Shakespeare or Aquinas. Buy something beautiful from a local craftsman.
Screens and machines won’t feed your soul. Only true art can lift our gaze to God.
As Catholics, we can’t afford to let our hearts grow cold.
May God bless you!