50 Years Ago, the Future Benedict XVI Warned Us About the Dangers of AI

‘When functions are all that exist,’ said Father Joseph Ratzinger in 1973, ‘man, too, is nothing more than a function.’

Pope Benedict XVI prepares to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass at Santa Sabina Church in Rome, March 1, 2006.
Pope Benedict XVI prepares to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass at Santa Sabina Church in Rome, March 1, 2006. (photo: giulio napolitano / Shutterstock)

The theme for this year’s World Day of Peace, “Artificial Intelligence and Peace,” delved into the “urgent questions” and “consequences” of ever-progressing digital technologies. This is a timely theme, of course, as AI is now seemingly everywhere. The Pope’s message continued into a brief exploration into the “technology of the future: machines that ‘learn’ by themselves.” The document proposes a limit on the “technocratic paradigm.” It says:

Human beings are, by definition, mortal; by proposing to overcome every limit through technology, in an obsessive desire to control everything, we risk losing control over ourselves; in the quest for an absolute freedom, we risk falling into the spiral of a ‘technological dictatorship.’

Technological dictatorship — the kind of phrase Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI might have employed if faced with the realities of an omnipresent artificial intelligence.

But, in fact, the late prophet from Bavaria did foresee the rise of the digital sphere — and its threat to overpower its human inventors — more than 50 years ago.

In the spring of 1973, Father Ratzinger delivered Lenten sermons at St. Emmeram Church in Regensburg. These were later collected and published in the Ignatius Press volume, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God.

Before quoting the relevant passages from the sermon, titled “God Has Names,” it seems to me the core of the ethical issue with AI is a metaphysical one: Is it not unreasonable to ask, for instance, Where is God in all of this? The further we move into automation, the more impersonalism follows — we have seen this in the shift from person-to-person customer relations in everyday life. In the ever-widening digital revolution that has transformed every aspect of life, the question becomes starkly existential: if God is represented in the human face of Jesus, where is God in the realm of the endless series of numbers that comprise the digital sphere?

Here we can look to the prescient wisdom of the future Bishop of Rome for guidance.

Interestingly, Father Ratzinger notes his following comparison between names and numbers was suggested to him by a student. The teacher, inspired by the insight of a student, draws on Exodus as his historical framework, when God speaks to Moses: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). And for Moses to receive this, he had to go out of his way, “beyond the wilderness,” to “the mountain of God, Horeb” (3:1). “There is no experience of God unless one goes out from the business of everyday living and accepts the confrontation with the power of solitude,” Ratzinger remarked. This is the fundamental conflict with living a Christian life and the march of modernity.

In other words, we might draw on Professor Ratzinger again: “The world offers you comfort, but you weren’t made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

So, God revealed to Moses his name — not a number, not a vague ethereal presence or some indifferent omnipresent thing.

Ratzinger then leaps to citing the Gospel of St. John, when “the name of God” is mentioned four times in Chapter 17, “set within the framework of Jesus’ testimony to his own mission, which consists in making known to men the name of God.” Jesus, then, is the new Moses, fulfilling what was somewhat abstract and incomplete in Exodus 3.

“What, then, does ‘the name of God’ mean?” Ratzinger asks. “Perhaps it is easiest to grasp what this entails if we look at its opposite.”

The Revelation of John speaks of the adversary of God, the ‘beast.’ This beast, the power opposed to God, has no name, but a number. The seer tells us: ‘Its number is six hundred and sixty-six’ (13:18). It is a number, and it makes men numbers. We who lived through the world of the concentration camps know what that means. The terror of that world is rooted in the fact that it obliterates men’s faces. It obliterates their history. It makes man a number, an exchangeable cog in one big machine. He is his function — nothing more.

This is haunting imagery, especially when drawing on the horrors of the concentration camps, when people were deemed inhuman by the Nazis. These innocent prisoners thus had only numbers — numbers branded on their arms like beasts of burden.

For when functions are all that exist, man, too, is nothing more than a function. The machines that he himself has constructed now impose their own law on him: he must be made readable for the computer, and this can be achieved only when he is translated into numbers. Everything else in man becomes irrelevant. Whatever is not a function is — nothing. The beast is a number, and it makes men numbers.

“He must be made readable for the computer, and this can be achieved only when he is translated into numbers.” What does this mean? While our techno-society is ostensibly at the service of humanity, science fiction novels and movies have long warned how such technology becomes masters over its creators. But here, the future pope goes even a step further: not only does mankind ultimately become fed into the database of the computer, but humanity is also stripped of its personhood for the sake of feeding the digital beast. AI absorbs what it means to be human for the sake of human convenience, but it lacks the complexity of human emotion, of human desire, of what makes mankind so imperfect — so mortal.And, as ever with Joseph Ratzinger, he pulls us out of the pending void of darkness and nothingness:

But God has a name, and God calls us by our name. He is a Person, and he seeks the person. He has a face, and he seeks our face. He has a heart, and he seeks our heart. For him, we are not some function in a “world machinery.” On the contrary, it is precisely those who have no function that are his own.

As the AI agenda continues to push for normalcy and as an almost inevitable part of our lives, this meditation from Joseph Ratzinger raises a question: If AI will better society, how will it affect the poor and marginalized, the lonely and abandoned? And true prophet that he is, Ratzinger closes his “God Has Names” sermon by quoting St. John of God

And when I see so many of my brethren in poverty and my neighbors suffering beyond their strength, oppressed in mind or body by so many cares, and am unable to help them, it causes me exceeding sorrow. But I trust in Christ who knows my heart.

The theologian who would later capture the hearts of the faithful in both his active and retired ministry as shepherd of the universal Church was fully aware of the storm of relativism that engulfed us all. Here, he calms us, by keeping our gaze fixed on a name, not a number. The name of God, the Person of Jesus Christ.