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Dr Matthew Tan: AI cannot understand wisdom of the heart

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While AI can be a great technical aid to the intellect, machines know nothing about matters of the heart, where human life gains its greatest significance. Photo:
While AI can be a great technical aid to the intellect, machines know nothing about matters of the heart, where human life gains its greatest significance. Photo:

Last week, Pope Francis issued the papal World Day of Social Communications message, entitled Artificial Intelligence & the Wisdom of the Heart: Towards a Fully Human Communication.

While the subtitle appears to be straightforward enough, the bundling of AI, wisdom and the heart in the title might require some unpacking.

We can read this message against the backdrop of his World Day of Peace message released on New Years Day, Artificial Intelligence and Peace. That message looked at spheres in which AI, left unchecked by ethical, social, cultural and legal parameters, can actually undermine ethics, societies, cultures and laws rather than building them up.

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Not resorting to Luddite knee-jerk anathemas against AI, the pope instead drew our attention to the questions that AI technologies in and of themselves do not answer, namely the “deeper understanding of the meaning of human life, the construction of knowledge, and the capacity of the mind to attain truth” (3).

It was this striking statement that got further treatment in his social communications message.

We get a sense of this in the pope’s first body paragraph, which began by quoting from the philosopher-priest Romano Guardini’s Letters from Lake Como (written in the mid-1920s).

“[W]e are constantly in the process of becoming,” Guardini thought, and must enter into the process with “openness but also with sensitivity to everything that is destructive and inhumane.”

If the pope’s message could be summed up in a phrase, it is that the fulcrum to the process of becoming—the pursuit of life, knowledge and truth, and negotiating our current machine-learning context with our humanity intact—is located in the heart.

As Augustine suggested in his Confessions, we are lovers before we are knowers. Therefore, in Guardini’s words in his book The Lord,

“None of the great things in human life springs from the intellect; every one of them issues from the heart and its love.”

“The heart”, says Pope Francis, refers to that integral and unified “place of freedom and decision making” and, for the Christian, the “inward place of our encounter with God.”

More than simple knowledge therefore, the heart seeks a wisdom that “integrate[s] the whole and its parts,” which only comes when we “look at things with God’s eyes.”

While AI can be a great technical aid to the intellect, technical knowhow is beneficial when it is embedded in wisdom which, the pope warns, “cannot be sought from machines” (and we can add “nor by machines”).

In Augustine’s Confessions, wisdom is more properly pursued as a lover’s object of desire than as the subject of an engineer’s manual.

While manual intelligence fills the head (and only a small part at that) to grasp facts, wisdom moves the heart to commit the whole person to life-changing and life-giving truth.

Indeed, the humanity of our communications is to be defended, insofar as our communications coincide with the commitment of persons and their presence to others.

As the pope indicates, communications are human insofar as they apprehend “a complex, multiethnic, pluralistic, multireligious and multicultural society,” rather than reduce their concreteness to “statistical data” to be exploited by “echo chambers.”

Moreover, the pope says that harnessing the technical potential of artificial intelligence for truly human ends crucially depends on the “inclination of the heart.”

We can go further and suggest that truly human communications can only happen when the heart, fired by love, draws the person to, paraphrasing Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, acts of selfless and self-giving “ecstasy…outside himself, in which he is stretched out infinitely beyond himself.”

This means a training of the heart to explode in self-giving, rather than withdraw into echo chambers for our own survival. Only then can one direct the application of Artificial Intelligence to the self-less gift of one person’s presence to another.

At the end of his Letters, Guardini remarked:

“In history, creative and unifying forces work more slowly than those that are one sided and violent … It would be a great favour of history if the clarity of awareness … were to be proven capable of forestalling all that threatens us.”

Harnessing the potential for AI to enhance our humanity, therefore, requires a redemption of its applications, via the careful attention to our hearts’ desire and wisdom’s pursuit.

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