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A reflection on Pope Francis’ prayer intention for November

By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ, 21 November 2020
Engineers work with medical robotic equipment. Image: ThisisEngineering RAEng/Unsplash

 

Pope Francis’ Prayer Intention for November: Artificial Intelligence – Let us pray that the progress of robotics and artificial intelligence may always serve humankind

When many of us think of robots and artificial intelligence, we instinctively imagine them as hostile forces. We see them as taking over our human world and we fear that they will take control of our lives. Many movies about the future present a nightmare world in which robots have turned against their human creators, and artificial intelligence has developed a malign will of its own, shaping the world and human beings to its own interests.

More soberly, many people fear that robots and artificial intelligence, while still subject to the human beings that program them, will make human beings superfluous. Big corporations and governments will replace manual workers, drivers, surgeons, office workers, teachers and dentists, as they find artificial intelligence and robots to be more skilful and cheaper. The result will be that more and more people will be unemployed. We can see some signs of this in the response to the coronavirus. During it, the demand for online shopping grew enormously, taxing the resources of the large supermarkets. In response, Woolworths set about manning its huge warehouses with robots that can sort and pack goods and ready them for distribution. Such mechanical work can be done more efficiently and cheaply by robots and machines with artificial intelligence than by human beings, who are then made redundant.

Such changes can be terrifying. With his characteristically open mind, however, Pope Francis sees them as a gift that can be used wisely or foolishly, for individual and selfish gain or for the fuller life of all human beings. Work is one of the human activities that will be most affected. If big corporations, for example, take decisions on the use of robots simply by comparing the costs of robots and human beings, and so sacking their workforce, that may increase the wealth of their big investors. But it will leave more and more people in debt and depressed at the loss of work that is so important for their self-respect. Individual people and society would then be weakened as a result. If, however, the corporation were to retrain their workforce to perform more skilled and complex tasks while freeing them from tedious and repetitive work, that would help people to live more fully and so to contribute more to their society.

In many areas of administration, too, artificial intelligence can replace workers. A cautionary story of how not to do this was the Australian Government program Robodebt, which demanded that vulnerable people who were receiving benefits repay sums of money with no access to appeal. The debt owing, it turned out, was calculated on the basis of misleading criteria. If people whose jobs were lost with the introduction of the scheme had been given responsibility to deal with complaints, the many persons who suffered anxiety at the unjust and crippling demands made upon them would have been reassured. The Government would also have retained some respect for its dealings and have saved money lost in compensation and litigation.

If artificial intelligence and robots are to be used in a way that blesses rather than curses society, their use must be based on respect for human beings and for the relationships which shape their lives. Respect demands that these things are seen as assisting human beings and not as replacing them. Human beings remain responsible for the programming of robots and for the algorithms that shape artificial intelligence.

Ultimately robots need to be programmed, and artificial intelligence needs algorithms to inform its conclusions. Human beings are responsible for them, and their programming needs to respect human values. Both for their employment and in the functions they perform, persons must be responsible and respectful. Computers can defeat the best human players at chess and perhaps help devise better rules. But human beings must ultimately decide by which rules the game will be played.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.

 

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