08 April 2021, The Tablet

Dante’s human journey

Dante’s human journey

Dante holds a copy of The Divine Comedy, open to Canto XXV of the Paradiso in a portrait by Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1530
National Gallery of Art, washington DC, USA, samuel H. kress collection


The Divine Comedy was written to awaken us to what is distinctively human: it is essential reading for the age of artificial intelligence

It has become increasingly common among experts in artificial intelligence (AI) to believe that the most pressing problem facing humanity is not that computers will become conscious. That may or may not happen, depending upon whom you ask. The more immediate concern is that AI-based tools and AI assistants (AIs) are becoming so efficient in the ways they aid our lives that we are at risk of forgetting how to live without their slick planning, cunning manipulation, and tremendous capacity for problem-solving. The challenge is to ensure AIs benefit us more than they threaten us –and that means understanding more fully what it means to be human.

The question has been taken up by a team organised by the International Society for Science and Religion. The group includes the AI expert Yorick Wilks and the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. I have joined their discussions when they have focused on the nature of what might be called “spiritual intelligence”. This is a crucial aspect of human awareness, and a better understanding of it may help us navigate a world increasingly shaped by AIs. I have found myself turning to the Italian poet Dante Alighieri for help. The Divine Comedy might be described as having been written precisely to awaken readers to “spiritual intelligence”. In the apostolic letter commemorating the 700th anniversary of the poet’s death released last month, Pope Francis described Dante as a “prophet of hope” and praised his work for the “enduring warnings and insights it contains for humanity as a whole, not simply believers”. There is no better example of this than how Dante illuminates some of the qualities that distinguish what it is to be human.

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