In this two-part series John Green explores some of the benefits and challenges of the AI revolution.

[New City Magazine – August-September 2023, page 4-6]

More years ago than I care to remember, I wrote an article for New City about computers which, at the time were seen by some people as a kind of ‘malevolent genius’ that sought to outsmart humans. Over the intervening years we have come to be totally dependent on computers and the associated technology that has given us the Internet with all its associated benefits and hazards.
Today all the talk is about ‘Artificial Intelligence’ which many regard with equal foreboding.
Recently I discovered a computer application whose primary use is editing documents in the popular ‘Portable Document Format’, or PDF. However, almost as an afterthought, the application also allows the document to be analysed and summarised using artificial intelligence.
To test it out, I fed it a transcript of one of Chiara Lubich’s talks in which she contrasted the communitarian spirituality of the Focolare Movement with other more individualistic spiritualities.
First of all it produced this short descriptive summary of the document:

The PDF is a transcription of Chiara Lubich’s speech to the Focolare community in December 1994 about the collective spirituality of their movement. Chiara focuses on the uniqueness of their spirituality being communitarian or collective rather than individualistic. She also briefly touches on other aspects of their spirituality such as evangelisation, inculturation, and the economy of communion.

Then it suggested three questions arising from the document that I might want to ask. Here they are, together with its answers:

Q: What is the collective spirituality of the Focolare movement and how is it unique?

A: The collective spirituality of the Focolare movement is described as a search for the Kingdom of God among souls, in addition to searching for it in individual souls. It is characterised by the experience of the Spirit together, in fraternal communion. The movement is built on the foundation of a pact between members that says ‘I am ready to die for you; and I for you.’ This pact is the basis of the whole movement and is repeated throughout the community. The spirituality is unique in its emphasis on community and mutual love, and in the belief in the possibility of a collective experience of the Spirit.

Q: Could you explain a bit more about the Economy of Communion and its relevance to the Focolare community?

A: The Economy of Communion is a social-economic reality that was discovered by the Focolare Movement in 1991. It is based on the principle of sharing profits among the less fortunate through solidarity with them. It aims at building a more human and fraternal society by bridging the gap between rich and poor. The Economy of Communion is seen as a concrete realisation of the Gospel message of loving one’s neighbour as oneself. It is relevant to the Focolare community because it is one of the key projects of the movement, and it is seen as testimony to the possibility of living out the ideal of unity in a practical way. The Economy of Communion is an important way for the community to live out its spirituality in the world and to contribute to the transformation of society.

Q: How does the Focolare community approach evangelisation and what are some of their key beliefs?

A: The Focolare community approaches evangelisation by living out the Gospel message of unity and mutual love among its members, and by sharing this message with others through personal witness. The community emphasises that evangelisation is not about proselytism, but about living out the Gospel message in everyday life. They seek to meet people where they are, in their own cultural context, and build relationships with them based on mutual respect and a shared commitment to living out the Gospel message. The community focuses on building bridges between different cultures, religions, and world views, rather than emphasising theological differences.
Some of the key beliefs of the community include the centrality of Jesus in their lives, the importance of mutual love and unity, the value of every human person, and the belief that unity is possible despite differences. They also place a great emphasis on the role of women in the Church and society, and on the importance of dialogue as a means of building bridges between people of different cultures and religions.

When I showed this to some friends they were ‘scarily impressed’. Somebody said it was one of the best summaries of the Focolare Movement that they had ever read – and it was all generated in a few seconds by a machine!

So where will all of this lead us?

For several decades now, human knowledge and experience has been recorded in a variety of different ways. In return for letting us use ‘free’ services via the Internet, organisations have been gathering data from the documents that we publish, the questions we ask, the photographs and movies that we share, news items, and so on. The list is endless, and the quantity overwhelming. It is only in more recent times that the ability to use all this information has emerged, so that it is now feasible to use it to answer questions. It is clear that some of the information in the above examples came, not from the original article, but from the system’s wider knowledge about the Focolare Movement. The machine was able to extract relevant information from its vast database in a very short time, and present it in near-perfect English.
This is just one powerful and useful application of AI. Sometimes we humans write many more words than are strictly necessary. AI can distil the real meaning from our words and so make life easier for our readers.

Language translation

A better-known application is language translation. Language differences have arguably been one of the more significant causes of disunity, mutual suspicion and misunderstanding between different peoples. In the Focolare Movement we have become accustomed to hearing and reading material that has been laboriously translated from Italian, and the need for translation limits the flow of news and other information. A few years ago a small company in Germany offered an AI based translation facility, free of charge, via the Internet. The results were significantly better than those offered by rivals at the time, to the extent that it was often possible to use the results with only a few minor corrections. As time went on the quality improved because the system learned from the material which was submitted to it, and from corrections or improvements suggested by its users. It now even seems to understand Focolare jargon! The day is not far away when instant language translation will be a feature of every mobile phone. To some extent it already exists, but it hasn’t quite reached the point of allowing multilingual conversations in a crowded room.
The potential uses for AI are far-ranging. It can be used to improve old photographs, movies and sound recordings. An intelligent system that knows what something ‘should’ look and sound like, can often bring historical material back to life.

Like all powerful tools, AI can be abused.

Intelligent robots have been the subject of science-fiction for many years. One of the early ‘prophets’ was Isaac Asimov who, in 1942, devised the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ as follows:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

He later added a ‘Zeroth Law’: A robot may not injure humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. This law was added when, in his writings, there emerged a superior ‘god-like’ robot that had existed among humans for thousands of years, and whose consequent experience allowed it to discern what was beneficial or injurious to humanity as a whole.

These laws have influenced the world beyond science fiction, and various bodies have produced sets of rules and principles governing the use of Artificial Intelligence that are inspired by Asimov. However, the problem lies in ensuring that the rules are always observed, something that is probably impossible, although Asimov somehow managed to have his rules so deeply embedded in his robots’ brains that they ceased to function if a rule was broken. Nevertheless the genie is out of the bottle. AI is here to stay.

(To be continued)

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