With artificial intelligence here to stay, including within the Church, questions abound as to whether mankind will be surpassed. OSV News photo/Reimund Bertrams, Pixabay

Of bots and men: AI and the Church

By  Sheila Nonato, Catholic Register Special
  • July 30, 2023

In the brave new world of artificial intelligence, many have raised questions and voiced fears about AI’s potential to surpass human intelligence and bypass human agency.

Some of these questions are bound to be asked within religious circles as inevitably AI has made its way into the Catholic Church and other denominations.

From 2015-2022, corporate investments flowing into AI development jumped from $12.75 billion to $92 billion, according to German online platform Statista. Some of that money has gone into AI for religious purposes.

Touted as the first Catholic AI robot, SanTo (short for Sanctified Theomorphic Operation) is the creation of Prof. Gabriele Trovato from Tokyo’s Waseda University. SanTo is built like a small statue of a saint. A kind of “Catholic Alexa,” SanTO fields questions from users and gives a response with Biblical quotes from its database.

Meanwhile, in Germany, a “robot Lutheran priest” called BlessU-2 was created in 2017 to deliver blessings in five languages. It’s also been reported that a “robot Buddhist monk” in China and a “robot Buddhist priest” in Japan have been created, although with limited functionality. The inventors of Robo Rabbi even go as far as to see their AI app as equal to a human rabbi.

Is our society at the point where religious leaders can be superseded by bots? Some Catholic tech experts are leading a movement towards a “human-centred” AI.

Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, prefect of the Dicastery of Culture and Communication, told a mid-July conference on “The Future of Catholic Universities in the AI Age” in Milan, Italy, that the “next great investment” in AI must be a “human one.”

The cardinal quoted Pope Francis, saying “it is not enough to simply trust in the moral sense of researchers and developers of devices and algorithms,” highlighting the need to develop “algor-ethics.”

Launched this month, Magisterium AI seeks to bridge the gap between faith and technology. Matthew Sanders, CEO of Longbeard, the Canadian company that created Magisterium AI, said the web-based app is trained on over 400 Church documents, including papal encyclicals, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Code of Canon Law and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. It is currently in the open beta stage where “it’s a kind of user interface for people to ask questions and find out what the Church has to say about various topics,” he told The Catholic Register.

It is currently available for free trial online in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Chinese and Korean.

Sanders said Magisterium AI differs significantly from the popular AI chatbot ChatGPT because Magisterium AI is trained on a private database of only Church documents and, therefore, cannot “hallucinate” or make up information.

“Every point that our AI makes on a theological topic is cited,” he said.

ChatGPT, the fastest-growing app of all time, broke the Internet after it was developed by Open AI last year. It can compose emails, essays, articles, cover letters and social media posts within seconds, leading to concerns that it can replace human writers.

However, generative AI models like ChatGPT are prone to mistakes, known as “hallucinations,” leading to the spread of misinformation.

Conversely, Sanders said Magisterium AI is a force for good and can be a powerful tool for evangelization and catechesis.

Sanders wants the record to be clear: we are not looking down the road at an AI-penned encyclical or robot Catholic priests.

“AI will never replace priests or people in the Church, but it can be a very useful tool which could help to empower most regular Catholics, including parents who are trying to catechize their kids, but also teachers in the classroom,” Sanders said.

Moreover, priests can use Magisterium AI to assist them with their homilies.

“As a priest gets busier, they have less time and even they don’t have time to go researching and pulling from Church documents for their respective homilies,” he said.

Fr. Mark Morley, vocations director for the Diocese of Hamilton and a lecturer in Cybernetics and Society at the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Society, Technology and Values in Systems Design Engineering, agrees that there won’t be any robot priests in the Catholic Church’s future. Morley explained that the priest acts in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) and he alone can perform the sacraments, not an AI bot.

Morley believes there is a place for AI within the Church — “We certainly, as Catholics, have always engaged with (trending) topics in the world” — but it should be explored with caution.

“I think we should embrace (AI) cautiously,” Morley said.

Notably, a bot has no faith. It’s a disembodied entity. The focus of ministry and evangelization should be the personal encounter, he said.

“There is a bit of a misnomer that the Catholic faith is a database,” Morley said. “It’s a living faith. It’s not a dead database.

“When you look at the bots, they have all the qualities of angels and demons … The developers intend to create human-made angels that serve us. But we would be naive to think that none of these bots will turn out to be human-made demons that serve themselves, or perhaps it’s better to say human-made demons that are not aware of our best interests,” Morley cautioned.

As for a priest using technology like Magisterium AI to prepare a homily, “Preaching is more like an art than science,” he said. “But at the same time, because there is the work of the Holy Spirit, what is more important is the integrity of the preacher than their eloquence in giving a speech.”

So is a human-centred AI possible?

Alexis Haughey, a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and co-founder of the newly created Catholic Institute of Technology, remains hopeful.

“We definitely can create a human-centred AI that does the best to support humans and their work and their lives, and helps them to grow and flourish,” she said during a video interview from Boston.

“I think it’s important to understand exactly what intelligence is. We are intelligent because we are made in the image and likeness of God and that’s something that AI is never going to be,” Haughey said.

“I think there’s a great legacy there of Catholics leading innovation. As a Catholic, that’s a legacy we want to reclaim and build on.”

One of the sad beliefs when it comes to faith and science is “that Catholic faith and scientific truth are somehow incompatible,” she said.

“It’s sad because so many leaders in scientific history were Catholics, specifically consecrated religious. For example, the first PhD in computer science was a Catholic nun, the founder of modern genetics was an Augustinian monk and the inventor of the first mechanical clock went on to become pope.”

(With files from Catholic News Service.)

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