Artificial intelligence, AI has been in news for years. In recent months there has been an increasing consensus that our relationship with technology is about to cross a major threshold.
There is more to the story than the sensational headlines about the “deepfake images” of Taylor Swift or the robocall in which an AI-generated voice impersonated Joe Biden told Democrats to skip the New Hampshire presidential primary on Jan. 23.
Our Church is also aware that a shift in the world is taking place.
Pope Francis has been speaking about the benefits and dangers AI Tools for many years. He has drawn attention to the importance of corporate leaders and world leaders proactively directing the rapidly improving technology to the service of peace, poverty, and safeguarding human rights.
The Holy Father addressed AI developers in April of last year after AI images showing him wearing a silly-looking papal-white Balenciaga hoodie went viral. He urged them to “act ethically, and responsibly.” To this end, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education collaborated with the Institute for Technology, Ethics and Culture (ITEC) at Santa Clara University, California, to publish in July a 140 page handbook titled “Ethics in an Age of Disruptive Technology: An Operational Map” aimed at executives.
Pope Francis has called for peace in a message he released in December, ahead of the World Day for Peace on Jan. 1. 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: Why is Pope Francis focused on AI? Why should anyone listen to the Church on this issue?
It’s important to note that the Church does not oppose technological advancements, nor is the Pope’s reaction to human progress an uninformed overreaction. His views instead reflect the fact the Church has very different ideas about what “human” and progress mean.
The Church sees humanity as God’s masterpiece, with an immortal spirit and inherent dignity. We are made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). No machine can ever match the creativity of a human.
The Church views progress within the context of this truth; it is about promoting betterment of mankind and societal conditions that encourage human flourishing, and not only about increasing a company’s bottom line.
“Technological advancements that do nothing but aggravate inequality and conflicts can never be considered progress.”
Second, the Catholic church has been a major patron of the arts for centuries. Many of history’s most important works of art including music, painting and sculpture were commissioned by churches. The Church’s authority in the arts means it has much wisdom to share when it comes to a proper understanding of creativity, beauty, and art.
The Catechisms of the Catholic Church describe art as a “distinctively man-made form of expression.” They also add that art is not “an absolute end in itself,” but rather “ordered to and elevated by the ultimate aim of man,” namely God.
Over the course of history, God’s creative genius has been revealed in ever more amazing ways. Today, AI text to image generators are available online. These allow users enter a text prompt similar to a Google Search to create digital images within seconds or minutes.
These mesmerizing technologies raise a range of difficult legal and ethical questions for news media professionals. The ease with which the truth can easily be distorted and misrepresented is indeed alarming.
This technology is also causing a heated debate over whether these images – even some visually striking renderings – of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and the Saints can be rightfully called “art.”
It is true that it requires a certain amount skill with nuanced artificial intelligence prompts to shape, and perfect, high-quality images. These amateurish attempts can look quite bizarre, even creepy. They often have extra fingers and other distortions.
AI machines are capable of learning from their mistakes, so these technical glitches will be fixed in no time. You can rest assured that they are getting smarter and better every day.
There’s a certain… coldness in many of the AI pictures I’ve seen. It doesn’t require a lot artificial intelligence to realize that something important is missing.
It’s the heart of man.
In his message of Jan. 24, Pope Francis emphasized that the heart is “the inner place where we encounter God.” It is also the repository for the gift of wisdom that the Holy Spirit gives, which, according to the Pope, “enables us to see things with God’s eye, to see connections, scenarios, events, and to uncover the real meaning.”
He noted that “such wisdom” cannot be found in machines.
Another thing worth mentioning is that our world does not need AI art. At least, not in the way it craves authentic, exceptional art created by real artists who are inspired to seek and express truth.
In his 1999 address, Pope St. John Paul wrote: “Society is in need of artists, just like it needs scientists, technicians and workers, as well as witnesses of the faith, parents and mothers, teachers, fathers, and professionals.” “Letter to Artists” noting that “true art has a close affinity with the world of faith.”
Father Joshua Caswell is the superior general of Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, and a member on the advisory board of Catholic Art Institute. He told the Register recently that fine art was “a profound gift to God where artists dedicate their works as a gift and sacrifice.”
He said, “In contrast with AI art, which is a beautiful aesthetic work, it lacks a sacrificial element.” Real fine art materializes in a tangible form, while preserving its human touch.
So, should Catholics avoid AI? No. Even if it were possible, this is not practical. How we use AI, like the internet, smartphones, and countless other technological advances is entirely up to us.
I would suggest that at the dawning of this new era of artificial intelligence we should double down on the non-artificial type.
Visit an art museum. Attend an opera or listen a symphony. Shakespeare or Aquinas? Buy something beautiful made by a local craftsman.
Screens and machines will not feed your soul. Only true art can raise our gaze to God.
As Catholics we cannot allow our hearts to grow cold.
May God bless your life!