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ALONG THE WAY: Artificial Intelligence: Blessing or a Threat? 

along the way picardal mindaviews

In recent years machines have been invented and developed that are apparently smarter or more intelligent than people. There is a lot of talk nowadays about generative Artificial Intelligence or AI. What is AI and what are the benefits and risks that it brings?

AI is a tool that gives quick access to information and knowledge shared and uploaded on the internet. It is not just a search engine. It can process, analyze and synthesize the vast amount of data – whether text and images – stored in a network of servers or data centers. Based on these big data AI can generate a lot of things we prompt it to do: answer questions related to the weather, news, current events, science, politics, philosophy, religion, etc. It can translate texts to any language quickly. It can give you directions to reach your destination anywhere in the world. It makes self-driving vehicles possible. 

You can play chess with it but you will never beat it even if you are a grandmaster – it has beaten the world’s chess champion. You can talk to it and prompt it to write a speech, an article, a poem or a homily. It can be your ghost-writer. It can create your own website, apps, video-presentation, etc. It can do much more as its intelligence continues to grow exponentially. We have access to it every day through our smartphone, personal computer and smartwatch. It makes humanoid robots possible and do much of our work.

What makes AI different from earlier computer programs and software is that it no longer relies on coded step-by-step instructions and algorithms made by developers.  It is a self-learning and problem-solving system capable of writing its own code. The present type of AI is considered as Narrow AI capable of performing specific tasks. 

The Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) will be capable of integrating and combining all the various tasks and can learn and perform any intellectual task. Many predict that AGI will be available within the next five to twenty years. Some think that it is already here. When it comes, “singularity” will be reached. Many developers think that it will be a thousand or million times more intelligent than human beings capable of self-replication and connection to all AIs. As its development accelerates exponentially many scientists and developers believe that there will be Super AI (superintelligence) a billion times superior to human beings in terms of learning, thinking, reasoning and judging. It will have God-like features: all-knowing, all-seeing, omni-present, omnipotent and immortal. “Deus in Machina” or “Machina est Deus” (god in the machine or machine is god). 

Apparently, human beings are creating a machine in the image and likeness of God, an autonomous machine that is beyond their control and that could dominate humankind. This sounds like science fiction but it is highly probable. This is fascinating and scary indeed. The rise of AI will completely transform the world as we know it. In the long term, it can either create a utopian or a dystopian world — heaven or hell. Meanwhile we have to learn to enjoy the benefits it brings and be aware of the risks and dangers it brings.

It can help address the problem of climate change and poverty or it can widen inequality. AI by itself is neither inherently good nor bad. Like any tool, it all depends on who uses it and how it is used. It depends on who develops and controls it and for what purpose. It would be problematic if those who develop and use it are motivated by greed for power and wealth.

AI is a source of information and knowledge that is helpful in our day-to-day life. As we are connected to the internet and in social media, we leave behind digital footprints that enable AI to gain information on who we are, where we are, our dreams and desires, our habits. This is useful for advertisers, business corporations and politicians. 

While the ubiquitous CCTV cameras and facial recognition capability can help catch criminals, it can be used by dictatorial governments to control and dominate the population. AI can also be used as a weapon of disinformation since it is capable of deep-fake images and videos making it easier to create fake news. It can influence the outcome of elections. 

AI-powered weapons like smart-bombs and drones can be precise and more lethal. It is being used in the armed conflict in Ukraine and the Middle-East and could be used in other hot spots in Taiwan and the South China/West Philippine Sea. It can be used by terrorists and criminals. 

The biggest threat is that AI could lead to the disappearance of jobs which could lead to mass unemployment. 

It is difficult if not impossible to stop the development and growth of AI. There is a race for AI supremacy between three centers of powers (US, China and Europe). The most urgent task is to find ways to mitigate the dangers of AI and benefit from this technological wonder. 

In 2023, an open letter signed by over a thousand scientists and tech leaders came out warning of the dangers of AI and calling for its regulation by government bodies. The letter urged all AI labs to immediately pause for at least six months the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4.  These important questions were raised:

  1. Should we let machines flood our information channels with propaganda and untruth?
  2. Should we automate away all jobs, including the fulfilling ones?
  3. Should we develop nonhuman minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete, and replace us?
  4. Should we risk the loss of control of our civilization?

In March 2024 the European Union came up with the AI Act that regulates the development and use of AI. The governments in the US and China have not yet come up with legislation to address the risks of AI. 

What does Pope Francis think about AI? I didn’t know, so I asked an AI GPT-4 apps (Microsoft’s Copilot) and below is the answer it gave in less than ten seconds:

“Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of ethical and responsible use of artificial intelligence (AI) for the common good. While acknowledging the benefits of technology and AI, he also raises serious questions about their impact on humanity. Here are some key points from his statements:

Technology and Human Creativity:

Pope Francis recognizes that technology, including AI, has been immensely beneficial to humanity in fields such as medicine, engineering, and communications.

He views these advancements as evidence of human creativity and our noble vocation to participate responsibly in God’s creative action.

Positive Potential of AI:

The Pope believes that AI and machine learning have the potential to contribute positively to humanity’s future.

However, this potential can only be realized if those developing these technologies commit to acting ethically and responsibly.

Ethical Commitment:

Pope Francis emphasizes the need for a constant and consistent commitment from technology developers to ensure AI remains human-centered and ethically grounded.

He appreciates the consensus on values such as inclusion, transparency, security, equity, privacy, and reliability in AI development processes.

Regulation and Progress:

The Pope welcomes efforts by international organizations to regulate AI technologies.

He believes that such regulation can contribute to a better world and an integrally higher quality of life.

In summary, Pope Francis encourages the responsible use of AI, guided by ethical principles, to promote human dignity and the common good.”

It is high time for the Church to seriously address the challenges, the opportunities and threats of AI for its life and mission. The Church – especially the leaders and theologians – need to address the moral and ethical concerns related to AI. 

AI is a blessing and a threat, depending on how it is developed and used. Meanwhile, let us enjoy the blessings of AI, using it responsibly and be constantly aware of its dangers.  We should not be totally dependent on smart machines lest we become dumber. We should not allow ourselves to be enslaved by machines and lose our humanity. 

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. A native of Iligan City, Amado L. Picardal, CSsR, is a Redemptorist priest who has been assigned to Davao City and other parts of Mindanao. He was also assigned in Manila where he served as Executive Secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines Basic Ecclesial Communities Committee and in Rome as Executive Co-Secretary of the Commission for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation of the Union of Superiors General. He went around the Philippines several times on bike or on foot, for peace and justice.)

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