Pope Francis and the Rise of the Robots

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel.” ∼ Frankenstein, Ch. 10

In January 2018, the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos received the following message on the threat posed by Artificial Life:

Artificial intelligence, robotics and other technological innovations must be so employed that they contribute to the service of humanity and to the protection of our common home, rather than to the contrary, as some assessments unfortunately foresee.

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The author of this exhortation and warning was Pope Francis.

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On January 25, 1921, a new word was invented: robot. On that day a Czech play was staged, RUR. Written by Karel Capek, the play’s initials stood for Rossum’s Universal Robots. RUR was translated into English and staged on Broadway the following year; Spencer Tracey played one of the three robots depicted in the piece. The robots in RUR were not so much machines as some sort of cloned human beings. The play’s plot is a simple one: the robots rebel against their creators with dire consequences for the human race.

As popular as RUR proved to be, critics dismissed it as merely science fiction. Yet, almost a century later, on January 25, 2017, news was emerging from China that for the first time scientists had cloned a mammal. The headlines that followed this announcement spoke not so much of the monkeys who had emerged from the experiment as the threat that there was now a real possibility of the cloning of human life.

Reaction to this latest news from China came from the Vatican.  “Not everything that is possible is right,” said Msgr. Vincenzo Paglia, Head of the Pontifical Academy for Life. He added, “We must always consider the effects of our interventions on the ecosystem and weigh the risk of making mistakes in the management of new know-how which may in the future lead us to interventions on the human body.” In addition, the head of the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI), Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, said the case was “further proof of that kind of will to power, of mania, of omnipotence that is growing.” He added, “I wonder whether it really leads to solutions. I rather think that the result attained is only an affirmation of self.”

As this latest news emerged, January 2018 also marked another anniversary: the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

In the summer of 1816, Frankenstein’s author had gone with Percy Shelley, Byron, Polidori and others to Lake Geneva. They had wanted to escape the darkness and the gloom of England, on account of Mount Tambora having erupted in April 1815. That was, and still is, one of the largest explosions ever recorded in human history. Ash from the volcano was dispersed throughout the world. Crops failed; pollution spread and with it disease; 1816 was to be remembered as the “Year Without a Summer” such was the impact of Tambora across the globe. So in Switzerland the English visitors found little cheer; it was as overcast as their home country: wet, dark and dismal. Inevitably, the party retreated indoors. There, they began to tell each other ghost stories. The inclement weather outside did not abate. In the end, they ran out of stories, and so had to invent new ones. As the darkness persisted all around, rain and thunder continued to crash upon the troubled surface of Lake Geneva. In this fevered environment, from the consciousness of a sixteen-year-old girl, a horror story was born.

The fruit of Mary Shelley’s imagination was to become Frankenstein or Prometheus Unbound. From its publication in 1818, the novel caught the imagination of the public. The first stage productions were taking place in London and Paris shortly thereafter. A century later, one of the first motion pictures ever made was a version of Frankenstein. By the early 1930s, and the emergence of the Universal Studios’ version, Frankenstein had become a world wide horror icon, and has remained so ever since.

The stage and cinematic versions of Frankenstein have deviated greatly from Mary Shelley’s novel. The horror strand has been emphasized to the detriment of the subtler ethical, moral and philosophical aspects of the plot, which have been either sidelined or lost altogether. This is a shame. Two hundred years after its publication, the story of a scientist who played god appears more relevant now than ever.

Although many have seen the countless Frankenstein films, few will know that the novel’s plot is not simply one of horror but even more a tale of hubris. In it, a young scientist is haunted by what he creates, especially when the creature demands a relationship with its creator. As this relationship is denied, the thing created turns that longing for communion into a desire for deadly revenge. As a consequence, the world of the creator is eventually upturned by what he has created. If nothing else Frankenstein is a moral tale revealing that actions have consequences, and always shall have.

In 1965, at a conference organized by NASA, there were echoes of the Shelley novel when the invited speaker stepped up to the podium and began as follows:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind.

The speaker, I. J. Good, then paused before adding the following: “Thus the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make…”

During the Second World War, Good had been a cryptographer at Bletchley Park, the British Intelligence Headquarters where ‘unbreakable’ German wartime codes were deciphered. After the war, Good moved to the United States and worked on computer design, as well as writing on the rise of artificial intelligences and their future possibilities for humanity.

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick made the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. In it, an artificial life, the computer HAL, moves from being the omniscient benefactor of the astronauts aboard their spaceship to becoming their nemesis. HAL controls all aspects of the space ship. So once the astronauts lose control of HAL… At the time, and for many years after, the film was praised simply as an imaginative motion picture: its original plot and the film’s cinematography seen as cinematic science fiction at its best. Perhaps, however, it was more than that. One of the advisors, specifically sought out to help with the production and story it told was I. J. Good.

In 2015, the normally sober Daily Telegraph ran the following headline: “Sociopathic Robots could overrun the human race within a generation.” Its report came from that year’s Davos Conference. Scientists gathered there had been lecturing the assembled great and good on a theme that many would have felt was the preserve of science fiction. In essence, what was being discussed was the idea that I. J. Good had first flagged at the NASA conference 50 years previously: could human intelligence compete with what was being created in artificial intelligences? Or, like the astronauts of 2001, were we creating a world so increasingly run by these artificial intelligences, that we were entering into the same dangers as the fictional space travellers?

This year, to the conference at Davos, the pope sent an unusual message. It asks for artificial life and robots to be used for the service of humanity, for our protection and wellbeing, “rather than to the contrary.” One can only speculate as to what the pope’s thinking on what that “contrary” might mean. One thing is sure, however, that something is so “contrary” as to require a Papal warning to a gathering of world leaders. It also comes on the anniversary of the novel that for 200 years has been a warning about scientific exploration and its moral limits.

A few years before his death in 2009, Good revised his view, held from the early 1960s, on artificial intelligences. Writing about his 1965 paper—and of himself in the third person—he stated the following:

[The paper] “Speculations Concerning the First Ultra-intelligent Machine” (1965) … began: “The survival of man depends on the early construction of an ultra-intelligent machine.” Those were his [Good’s] words during the Cold War, and he now suspects that “survival” should be replaced by “extinction”… we cannot prevent the machines from taking over…

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Keir Dullae as Dr. Dave Bowman in an iconic scene from the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey.


  • K. V. Turley

    K.V. Turley is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

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