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Humanity in the age of AI: Professor Jim Al-Khalili speaks at Vatican workshop

6th March 2024

Will Artificial Intelligence (AI) change what it means to be human? The Pontifical Academy for Life invited Professor Jim Al-Khalili to the Vatican to give a speech on this very subject at a special workshop, Human. Meanings and Challenges.

Photo Credit: Vatican Media

The event was opened with a speech by the Pope, before he made a graceful exit to attend another event. This set the stage for Professor Al-Khalili’s speech exploring AI’s impact on humanity.

He told the audience how, like mobile phones or online banking, AI could make our lives easier. Unfortunately, AI could also make it easier for advanced superpowers to take lives on the battlefield, especially for those wielding advanced AI technology. Professor Al-Khalili called for international treaties akin to those for chemical or biological weapons to govern AI’s military applications. He also highlighted the need for the world to work faster to develop the appropriate legal frameworks to keep pace with the rapid advancements in AI.

Despite the hype surrounding AI, he argued that artificial general intelligence (AGI) with ‘human-level’ intelligence is still some ways away:

“When experts on AI talk about these models being intelligent or that they can learn and reason, they are not taking into account what defines true sentience, which would include not just logical reasoning but, say, values, or morality.”

Professor Al-Khalili argued that for humans to develop AGI, we must better understand consciousness. He told the attendees:

“Consciousness is not like a light switch that is either on or off. It’s a continuum, like a dimmer switch. We also know that consciousness is not a uniquely human attribute. Who would argue that their dog is not conscious? Unlike ChatGPT, your dog will miss you when you are away; it will feel guilty if you scold it, and it does feel pleasure and pain. It may not be able to solve mathematical equations, but then neither can a human baby.”

So, is AI the next step in human evolution? Perhaps not, Professor Al-Khalili concluded:

“But will AI ever think or feel like a human? I would say no. Why would it? And indeed, why should it? What makes us human is more than the neural connections in our brains. It is more than our intelligence, intuition, or creativity – all of which will likely one day be replicated in AIs. What makes us uniquely human is also about our behaviour and interaction with our physical surroundings, our relationships with each other within complex collective structures and societies; it is our shared cultures and beliefs, our history, our memories.”

The full text of the speech is available on the University of Surrey website.