Franciscan AI expert warns of technology becoming a 'pseudo-religion'

ROME (CNS) -- Artificial intelligence risks giving technology a "pseudo-religion" status by shaping the way people engage with information and reality, a leading expert on artificial intelligence said.

Interacting with artificially intelligent large language models like OpenAI's ChatGPT could "fracture us from reality," Franciscan Father Paolo Benanti, an expert on artificial intelligence and professor of moral theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, said March 7 at a conference organized by the Pontifical Academy of Theology.

Relying on such models could "reduce our capacity to have a strengthened, more sophisticated (way of) reasoning," he said, since people would have less need to engage in the focused thought required for tasks that can be completed by artificially intelligent technology.

Artificial intelligence, he said, can alter humanity's relationship with reality "to the point that (humanity's) desire for control, which satisfies the anxiety typical of the human condition, could take on a tendency toward a pseudo-religion regarding machines."

The theologian said that as machines become increasingly "humanized," humans also become increasingly "mechanized." As an example, he suggested considering a boy performing a task on a phone. "Is it his fingers that control the screen or are the phone's notifications controlling the behavior of the boy?" he asked.

"External causes such as interactions with machines can change our behavior," he said.

By using algorithms that consume and process the vast amounts of data humans produce, "the machine is not only able to predict our behavior, but is also able to produce our behavior," he said.

But unlike laws created by governments, which are also intended to influence human behavior, algorithms are developed by private companies that have financial earnings and not the public good as their primary objective, he said, citing as an example the world of e-commerce, which suggests products to users based on collected data about their shopping history and interests.

Father Benanti said that the "knowledge" produced by artificial intelligence can make data the principal way people making sense of and exercise control over their reality -- which is what he said religious thinking seeks to do -- and he said theology must confront such a rapid transformation in the way people view the world around them.