ChatGPT Encounters the Catechism of the Catholic Church
Can any good come from AI? A South Carolina-based tech company thinks so...
Irmo, SOUTH CAROLINA — “Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.” So said more than 350 technology executives, researchers and academics in a signed statement that warned of the existential threats of Artificial Intelligence.
That statement was published in May 2023, and, hot on its heels, came another warning, this time from Twitter boss Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak, a co-founder of Apple. Their joint letter called for a six-month moratorium on the development of advanced AI systems because of the risks still to be determined around AI — though Musk just announced his new AI company, xAI.
At the same time, in the U.S., the Biden administration has begun talking of the need to “manage [AI’s] risks.” And this month, the United Nations Security Council is holding its first-ever meeting on the potential threat to international peace and security posed by AI. Organized by the United Kingdom, this summit will examine risks of AI in relation to autonomous weapons and, perhaps more alarming still, of the risks around AI’s potential control of nuclear weapons.
Increasingly, AI is being seen as a threat not only to our way of life but to the very idea of human civilization.
For many, the speed of this “AI revolution” is overwhelming. Not least as, in November 2022, when ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer) was launched. ChatGPT, a sophisticated computer program, was designed by OpenAI, a research organization, purportedly with an aim to ensure that Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) benefits all of humanity. ChatGPT is an instance of a class of AI called: “language models.” These models are designed to understand, generate and engage with human language in a way that appears intuitive and natural. And it has found an audience. By January 2023, ChatGPT had become the fastest-growing consumer software application in history, gaining more than 100 million users and contributing to OpenAI’s valuation of $29 billion. Yet some have expressed concern over the potential of ChatGPT to replace human intelligence, to say nothing of its potential to promote plagiarism and its ability to peddle lies and disinformation.
So, for many, when asked the question about whether there are any benefits from AI, it would seem to provoke a resounding: “No.”
But there are those who beg to differ.
Fivable is a South Carolina-based tech company serving commercial clients, with its work almost evenly split between Catholic nonprofit entities and secular businesses. Founded in 2010 by Bryan Murdaugh and Dave Matney, its mission is “to free people from doing too many computer things so they have more time to do really human things.”
When asked about AI’s potential threats, Dave Hazen, VP of communications for Fivable, said: “AI can be turned to good or bad ends. As with any technology, there is the temptation to make an idol of convenience and to chase after the promise of ‘working less’ while failing to ask why or for Whom we work at all.” He added, “If we allow reliance on Artificial Intelligence to replace our desire for understanding, we will certainly be poorer. Thankfully, that’s not our only option.”
Fivable has taken this positive view of AI a stage further, however. Using the technology that powers ChatGPT, an API called GPT 3, Fivable has trained the computer program to reference the Catechism. The result: Catholic.chat, an interactive platform that allows users to engage with the Catechism in a natural, conversational format.
Catholic.chat is surprisingly user-friendly. Its landing page simply invites the user to: “Get Answers from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” Then the user is told to: “Select a chat experience below and ask your question.” After that, there are three levels of engagement to choose from:
“Child: Simple and easy to understand teaching”;
“Adult: Thoughtful answers for inquiring minds”;
“Scholar: All the details. No stone left unturned.”
It is as simple as it sounds, and all the answers are gleaned from the Catechism. “A key issue with asking ChatGPT a question is authority,” explained Hazen. “What documents or sources were referenced by the language model in order for it to produce the answer it gives? So we developed Catholic.chat to leverage the power of generative AI while keeping it on the rails of the Catechism. This way, anything that falls outside the bounds of this authoritative summary of doctrine won’t be referenced by the model.”
Hazen went on to say that, although such software could never replace a teacher or a parent in transmitting the faith, Catholic.chat provides, as Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, put it, “a place where the faithful can engage with a text [the Catechism] that can seem daunting or unfamiliar to many. Families can use it to start a conversation about any element of the faith. Teachers can use it to ensure what they teach is the truth. Students can use it to look up answers to questions about their faith. Even clergy can use it to infuse a little bit of the Catechism into their homilies at Sunday Mass.”
Fivable CEO Bryan Murdaugh views this making the Catechism accessible in a new way as an example of simply using “another tool in the software development toolbox. It’s one similar to others that have occurred throughout the history of computing, like the invention of the transistor, the dawn of personal computing, the internet and mobile computing. The pattern continues to accelerate with each new epoch. Just like any technology, the responsibility lies in the hands of the creators and practitioners to make sure it’s used ethically. It won’t always be. But, just like money, the more access is given to those who use a tool for good, the better.”
As Murdaugh explained, the team’s latest work in AI fits neatly with the overall philosophy of the company. “Fivable started as a place for the founders to create meaningful work,” he said. “Because of our background and contacts, much of our work was focused on the Church. As we grew, the experience we gained from secular software development benefited our Catholic clients; and the lessons we learned working with our Catholic clients benefited our team culture and our secular clients. The other lesson of our growth is that the kinds of problems this company is good at solving are not wholly unique, which has led us toward creating products that can be used by different organizations without starting over every time.”
Doubtless, Catholic.chat will do some good, but, surely, the overall picture in the emerging AI landscape is still one of hostile threat?
Murdaugh is not so sure. “There are different challenges with AI,” he said, “but we’re not at a stage — at least not yet — whereby machines are quasi-sentient and generate their own evil designs to take over the world.” He maintained that what is important with regard to AI is what he described as “responsible computing, keeping the right guardrails in place, and understanding pitfalls before you put your trust in systems.”
What about the claims that AI in general and ChatGPT in particular will make many redundant?
Murdaugh again countered that. He thinks the fears around AI replacing people in the workplace is a misunderstanding about how AI will change the workplace. Furthermore, he senses that this is actually “an exciting prospect for people who are ready to grow. And I think we’re called to growth.” Then he continued, coming to a faith-based observation: “And if you think about it, even if AI takes away everything — and I don’t think we’ll get there — what are we left with? The worship of our wonderful, loving God. It will always require a soul to do that.”
- artificial intelligence
- catechism of the catholic church
- catholic faith formation