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  • Writer's pictureEsmé L. K. Partridge

Pope Francis offers the most powerful critique of AI yet

Published in UnHerd.

On 1 January, the Catholic Church observes its “World Day of Peace” — a day which, since 1968, the Pope has used to address his followers on the prospects of peace in the year to come. The speeches tend to focus on a single issue, this year’s being of particular urgency both within and outside the church: the rise of artificial intelligence. 

In the speech, the Pope spoke not only of the threats posed by AI in warfare and terrorism, but its potential to radically rewire society in a way that undermines human nature. Speaking in terms of regulation rather than complete condemnation, he asserted that AI “ought to serve our best human potential and our highest aspirations, not compete with them”. Central to his speech was the concept of limit: something, he remarked, that is “frequently overlooked in our current technocratic and efficiency-oriented mentality” and yet “decisive for personal and social development”.

He continued to elaborate on the dangers of this “technocratic” society, in particular the algorithmic manipulation of human behaviour — likely alluding to social media giants such as TikTok — and the threat of automation replacing jobs and diminishing the quality of labour. Both of these, he expressed, are dangerous because they pose a fundamental threat to human dignity — a dignity he was, of course, able to articulate in the theological language of our being made in the image of God. 

For Catholics and non-Catholics alike, there is something to be said for the fact that the Pope is able to challenge AI with a coherent narrative about the world and our place within it. Arguably, one of the reasons why we are failing to regulate AI in the West is precisely because we are lacking such a narrative; beyond utilitarian explanations of material risk and financial gain or loss, few are able to explain precisely why human intelligence is qualitatively superior to artificial intelligence; why there is dignity in labour; and why technocracy imperils our quality of life. Without answers to these questions, we will surely be defeated by those who do have a vision of humanity — and those driving the AI revolution certainly do. 

Since its inception, Silicon Valley has been motivated by an ideology based upon gnostic ideas, aspiring towards a transhumanist utopia that overcomes all limits. In reality, such a “utopia” — in making us reliant on technologies that only “the experts” can configure — will ultimately dehumanise us, creating a monopoly of resources and robbing ordinary people of the skills that make life truly dignified and meaningful. As C. S. Lewis prophetically remarked in the The Abolition of Man:

If any one age really attains […] the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger […] The last men, far from being the heirs of power, will be of all men most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners and will themselves exercise least power upon the future.

- C.S. Lewis

As such a scenario becomes ever more likely, the need to present a counter-narrative to the false utopias of the AI ideologues is vital — a counter-narrative that recognises the need to work with, rather than against, human nature. Such a vision is what Lewis called the “Tao”: the true and unchanging way for humans to live in the world, of which Christianity is an expression.

It is not enough to oppose AI out of a vague scepticism towards progress — those who do so are all too easily dismissed as “luddites”. Instead, those critical of AI need a vision that can properly account for human nature. Pope Francis’s speech was, perhaps, a testament to this. The sanctity of human intelligence and creativity is only tenable if we believe that we are made in the image of a creator; likewise, the language of “limit” is only meaningful in the context of a theology in which we have been given a designated place within the universe.  

It is clear that the West will need such a vision if it wants to effectively mitigate the dangers of AI. Without it, the transhumanist paradigm will triumph, filling the void that secularism left behind. 


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