ON RELIGION: What happens when an AI avatar is given a priest

Autor: Goshen News

The penitent crafted the perfect sin to confess to a virtual priest: “Bless me father, for I have sinned. … I have had anger in my heart about the deployment of AI chatbots in inappropriate places.”

“Father Justin,” a 3D AI character created by the San Diego-based Catholic Answers network, offered biblical advice for wrestling with anger.

“God is merciful and loving, my child,” the bot concluded. “For your penance, I ask you to pray the Our Father three times, reflecting on God’s infinite mercy and love. And now, I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Legions of cyberspace believers pounced. One tweeted this cry: “HAIEEEEEEE.” Susannah Black Roberts of Plough magazine noted: “Hey @catholiccom your AI ‘priest’ is offering absolution. Might want to kill it with fire and never do anything like this again.”

Online detectives found other flaws. The National Catholic Register noted the app struggled when turning voices into printed words, translating “Eucharist” as “caressed” or even “you, you, you,” while “Communion” became “commute.” The Pillar asked if it was possible to baptize “my baby with Gatorade in an emergency,” and Father Justin affirmed that option.

“I say this with nothing but respect for you guys and your work, but … this should’ve just been a plain search engine,” tweeted Father Mike Palmer of the Congregation of Holy Cross. “Dressing it up as a soulless AI avatar of a priest does absolutely nothing except cause confusion and invite mockery of your otherwise excellent work.”

Catholic Answers President Christopher Check quickly confessed that his team “received a good deal of helpful feedback.” Thus, “Justin” lost his clerical collar.

“We won’t say he’s been laicized,” Check added in a public statement, “because he never was a real priest!” The goal now is to “refine and improve the app by identifying any deficiencies,” noting in particular that Catholic Answers “didn’t anticipate that someone might seek sacramental absolution from a computer graphic!”

For ministries considering AI work, the big question is obvious: What now?

“To be sure, while I remain convinced there’s a good chance the whole AI boom is likely to end somewhere dark and nasty for humanity, I don’t think it is going to be Catholic Answers or anyone else working on similar projects that bring us to our Skynet moment,” noted Ed Condon in The Pillar newsletter. “Short of that moment coming, I like and can see the use of AI as a kind of ‘super Google’ application for searching and returning answers from the enormous historical trove of the Church’s accumulated teaching and history.”

Nothing that happened during this cyber drama would have surprised anyone who paid close attention to the complex high-tech questions that surfaced in ancient faith traditions during the coronavirus pandemic, such as: Does watching an online Mass count as attending Mass?

Creating digital “persons” is going to challenge “what Catholics believe technology can do and can’t do,” said Brett Robinson of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. “When you start debating what is ‘embodied’ and what is ‘disembodied,’ that takes us straight into questions that are going to make us uncomfortable. … Catholicism is an incarnate faith, and there’s no way around that.”

It’s one thing to create a computer that understands human speech and then responds with a digitally created voice offering worthwhile material drawn from databases containing centuries of printed sources. It is something else, he noted, when machines are empowered to “offer spiritual advice and counselling.”

Millions of people — especially the young — now suffer from anxiety, depression and loneliness, while spending myriad hours gazing at smartphones, tablets and computers, noted Robinson, the author of the 2013 book “Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs.” Can ministries use AI to rescue the wounded?

“If I talk to a robot priest, the odds that I am going to get a real spiritual insight and the guidance that I truly need is way lower than if I deal with a real person,” he said. “But if you feel anxious about talking to a real priest, then that kind of human contact is precisely what you may be trying to avoid. Can you solve that problem with an app?”

Terry Mattingly leads and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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