St. John’s Forum Highlights Essential Questions Raised by Growth of AI

Artificial Intelligence Myth of Reality Powerpoint Presentation Slide with windows on the right showing the presenters faces
November 22, 2023

Existing and potential future applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and the ethical dilemmas associated with it were outlined in a panel discussion hosted by St. John’s University on November 17.

The discussion, titled “Artificial Intelligence and Evolution,” was moderated by Rev. Patrick J. Griffin ’13HON, Executive Director, Vincentian Center for Church and Society, and featured experts in neuroscience, information technology, and social ethics. Presenters included Luca Iandoli, Ph.D., Professor and Dean, The Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies, and the author of more than 100 papers on collective intelligence and online networks.

Dr. Iandoli was joined by Mirjana Pejić Bach, Ph.D., Professor of Informatics, University of Zagreb in Croatia; Santosh A. Helekar, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital; and Rev. Diarmuid O’Murchu, a social psychologist and member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart

The online discussion attracted more than 100 members of the St. John’s community who were eager to learn more about AI technology and its potential future uses.

“AI is on the top of the agenda for educators,” Dr. Iandoli said. “It is changing the ways we teach and the ways students learn, and the pace at which it is happening is mind-boggling. Humanity has never seen a technology being adopted so fast around the world.”

Initially developed in the 1950s, AI technology has seen explosive growth since the first decade of the 21st century, when machine learning was successfully implemented as a business problem-solving tool. It took AI-based ChatGPT less than a week to reach one million users, growth far exceeding that of other online enterprises such as NetflixAirbnb, and Facebook.

With that growth has come predictions of AI’s potential to liberate humans from time-consuming and even dangerous tasks, enabling them to focus on responsibilities that require creativity or empathy—qualities absent from even the most efficient of machines.

Dr. Iandoli called the rise of AI an “industrial revolution” along the lines of the 19th-century transformation from agrarian to manufacturing economies. What cannot be outsourced to machines, he said, are the essentials of mentoring, research, debate, and consumer service. “What we should do as educators is build the type of skill sets that complement machines and make our students more employable and more successful,” he said.  

As the title implies, the panel discussion emphasized the evolution of AI from what Dr. Pejić Bach called “robots and science fiction” to data aids now in everyday use, including mapping software, computer vision, language translating software, virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, and more.

Dr. Pejić Bach said that while AI technology is advancing, it will be decades before machines can equal the native intelligence of human beings. In the meantime, some in society are dealing with anxiety produced by AI.

“Unintended consequences are occurring,” Dr. Pejić Bach said. “AI can have a huge impact on the employability of different people. To ensure our economic, social, and environmental sustainability, AI needs to be implemented ethically.”

Likewise, Dr. Helekar, a medical doctor who researches human consciousness, said it will be centuries, if ever, before AI machines possess human consciousness and all the sensations that accompany it, including pain. That is because consciousness is inherently biophysical. 

“I don’t expect it for a couple of hundred years or more,” Dr. Helekar said. "But a machine possessing the requisite biomolecular apparatus could potentially be conscious.” 

Consciousness, Fr. O’Murchu added, energizes creation and forms the bond between science and spirituality, an essential consideration in the age of AI.   

“As the pursuit of knowledge became more refined, a technology that developed parallel to that was to be expected,” Fr. O’Murchu said. “The evolutionary process is doing what evolution does—drawing us forward into a greater integration of technology and the human.”

The fundamental questions, Fr. O’Murchu said, are who will assume control of this emerging technology and how will it be employed to benefit society?

“Who is going to hold the power, and who is going to develop the ethics and morality that will be so important?” he asked. “How might AI and the developments accompanying it help us to come to terms with the realities of the world we inhabit?”