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Cardinal Michael Czerny S.J., from Canada, is prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Illiteracy sometimes seems the best option. Obviously, I don’t mean real illiteracy, which is a terrible burden – I mean our preference to avoid “reading” the social and cultural reality that is unfolding around us.

The Pope’s New Year’s Day message, Artificial Intelligence and Peace, identifies the challenges that new technologies pose for building a fairer and more fraternal world. It’s not an easy read, but it shouldn’t be.

Francis sees artificial intelligence as a “sign of the times”: a distinctive characteristic of the present day, constantly changing and forecasting greater transformations in the future. The expression, “sign of the times,” indicates a new human reality that emerges from what’s going on around us – more or less promising, more or less threatening – which we need to interpret in the light of our faith (whatever we believe). Various judgments may ensue: some positive, some negative, and some, in this case, mixed.

As a sign of the times, artificial intelligence – no less than other expressions of human ingenuity – requires scrutiny to make sure that it really serves the common good, that it protects the inalienable dignity of the human person, and that it promotes fundamental rights. These are the lenses we need to “read” the reality we’re living in and shaping and being shaped by.

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Artificial intelligence already exerts a huge influence and will increasingly do so. We cannot foresee – and we can hardly imagine – their new applications and the effects they will have on our personal and social lives, on our politics and our economies, on our culture and the environment. Since we do not know where AI will take the human family, everyone needs to be better informed, to speak up and take responsibility. In short, illiteracy is not an option.

Pope Francis is no Luddite. He takes positive note of the contribution made to humanity by scientific and technological progress. These achievements have proven valuable in the service of human persons, their dignity and rights.

At the same time, we should not liken technoscientific progress to a neutral tool. Like a hammer, a tool can contribute to good or evil depending on the intentions not of the hammer-maker, but of its user. AI-based digital technologies, on the other hand, build in the individual and social values of their developers; subsequently, they reflect and shape the values of their users.

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Pope Francis decries the “technocratic paradigm”: an unscrupulous use of technology driven exclusively by a lust for profit and by vested interests. If this paradigm is the only rule that governs AI, it will end up causing outrageous collateral damage: inequalities, injustices, tensions, upheavals. Thus, as the Pope says in his message, artificial intelligence poses challenges that “are technical, but also anthropological, social, educational and political.”

We should be most afraid of artificial intelligence for purposes of war. Besides being ever more sophisticated and destructive, they remove human responsibility from the scene of battle. Ultimately, it may be an algorithm, not a person, that pulls the trigger or drops the bomb.

Artificial intelligence can also threaten social justice. In the world of work, for example, “knowledge machines” and robotics are wiping out more and more jobs, spurring major increases in poverty and displacement.

As for information, there are new ways to deliberately distort both words and images to misinform and manipulate, and these approaches seriously endanger civil order and democratic government.

Education, Francis emphasizes, is fundamental. We must ensure that those who design algorithms and digital technologies are more responsible, and we must train everyone, especially young people, to use new technologies consciously and to think critically about their consequences, especially for the poor and the environment.

The supervision and regulation of new technologies are required in all phases, from conception to marketing and actual use.

To govern the development and use of artificial intelligence responsibly, effective regulations are needed within countries as well as in multilateral agreements and binding treaties. As Pope Francis says regarding the climate crisis, “a different framework for effective co-operation is required … to consolidate respect for the most elementary human rights, social rights and the protection of our common home.”

The 2024 Peace Message implores not only the usual addressees to exercise co-responsibility at this moment in history – heads of state, political authorities, civil society leaders – but everyone else too.

So don’t leave it to the owners and developers. All of us are responsible for “reading” carefully and choosing well, if the world we leave behind is to be better and more peaceful. For destructive outcomes and unfavourable repercussions, we have only ourselves to blame; “illiteracy” is no excuse.

Let’s begin the year by informing ourselves bravely and interrogating ourselves deeply about this – it is perhaps the highest-stakes gamble of our future.

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