Can artificial intelligence (AI) really fix everything?
The question arose, with a “wink-and-nod,” in the “coy disclaimer” to a recent social media post that showed computer-generated photos picturing Donald Trump and Joe Biden as buddies, sharing each other’s company as if they were lifelong friends. Karen Swallow Prior calls the viral image “a fun way to offer the reminder that ‘seeing’ is not necessarily believing these days.”
Generative AI represents a qualitatively new phase in the ongoing revolution of communications technology. Its seemingly endless potential has already found helpful application in education, business, medicine and other sectors. From automated messaging to strategic planning to research and writing, the computing capabilities of AI make for a much more expeditious, and perhaps effective, use of our time.
But it does not, on that account, “fix” things. Repetitious contacts or painstaking research or thoughtful prioritizing are not “broken” tasks. They may be time-consuming and energy-spending, but that does not mean they need to be repaired.
What does need fixing is our understanding of what communication actually means and what it fully entails. The emergence of artificial intelligence challenges our appreciation of the essential features of this distinctively human activity.
Pope Francis takes up the “exciting and disorienting” theme of AI in his Message for the 2024 World Day of Communications, which was issued on January 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales (patron saint of journalists and Catholic writers). Following upon his reflection on this same topic in his message for the World Day of Peace, the Holy Father now addresses the need to respond to a fundamental question that AI puts before us all: “How can we remain fully human and guide this cultural transformation to serve a good purpose?”
On the one hand, the power of AI focuses our attention more on technology than on people, more on how we communicate than on who communications are from and for. “No doubt, machines possess a limitlessly greater capacity than human beings for storing and correlating data,” the pope writes, “but human beings alone are capable of making sense of that data.”
On the other hand, any communication that fails to account for truth runs the risk of distorting reality. Deepfake photos and manipulated stories may lead to laughter (when we spot them), but they can also hinder the intelligent interaction needed for real social discourse. Noting that he, too, has been the object of such stories, the pope rightly cautions us to be wary of the “cognitive pollution” that arises from the “technology of simulation.”
With a nod to the reflections of Romano Guardini, and reminiscent of his reference to St. Francis de Sales in last year’s message, Pope Francis again calls for us to cultivate the “real” intelligence that comes from the wisdom of the heart. Only there do we find “the virtue that enables us to integrate the whole and its parts, our decisions and their consequences, our nobility and our vulnerability, our past and our future, our individuality and our membership within a larger community.”
That integrating power of human intelligence recognizes that “information cannot be separated from living relationships” – with each other and with Wisdom itself. Now thrust into this new phase in the history of communications – “which risks become rich in technology and poor in humanity” – we need this wisdom of the heart to deal with what the pope describes as the primordial human temptation, namely “to become like God without God.”
That temptation has resurfaced with the astonishing and widespread applications of so-called artificial intelligence, “whose workings and potential are beyond the ability of most of us to understand and appreciate.” With this technology, we are faced with a new variation on an age-old choice. “It is up to us,” the pope concludes, “to decide whether we will become fodder for algorithms or will nourish our hearts with that freedom without which we cannot grow in wisdom.”
Making that decision, as St. Francis de Sales wrote long ago in the Introduction to the Devout Life, requires that we have a “well-balanced and reasonable mind.” Using just minds to make good choices is not something machines can manage, no matter how many words or images they can generate.
As fascinating as AI may be, the only fix to everything comes when the “communications” we engage in do what that term says – by creating a “union with” each other through a shared appreciation of what is really true and beautiful and good.
Oblate Father Thomas Dailey holds the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where he also directs the new Catholic Preaching Institute.