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By Eric A. Clayton

With every new article published on the AI-driven advances of ChatGPT, I can’t help but wonder: Have we learned nothing from science fiction? Was it just me who watched all those “Matrix” movies? Surely, folks have seen the “Terminator” films? What about the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot?

Most commentators agree that we’re still a ways away from the artificial intelligence of today leading to any sort of robot takeover. But you have to admit: All that ChatGPT is and represents is a bit alarming. It’s able to leverage the entire internet and respond with seeming intelligence, whether as a conversation partner or a research assistant.

I know it’s a game of numbers: You ask a question; the program analyzes and then offers the most logical response. But the effect is this: The software feels more and more human. And it’s doing more and more human things: writing term papers, offering dinner recommendations, and in the most extreme circumstances, professing to “love” a New York Times columnist.

Again, it’s all stats. It’s a program doing what it’s been programmed to do. It makes predictions based off of available data. It just so happens that its available data is, like, all the data.

But still. Unnerving.

And it’s forcing folks to ask some equally unnerving questions: What’s the difference between me and this machine? After all, writing is something ChatGPT seems pretty adept at. What’s the value I’m adding?

Back to those science fiction stories. Today they seem more a collection of cautionary tales than fantasy. But they do invite us to contemplate an essential theme: What does it mean to be human?

Even the most sophisticated AI requires a programmer; it is still a program responding to code, to its own set of digital parameters. It does not choose what it does; it does what it has been set up to do, what someone else has chosen for it.

Not so for us humans. We have free will and can use it to do all manner of things that may or may not bring us closer to what we are meant to do, to who we are meant to become. In fact, even the realization of who we are meant to be is mysterious to us, a lifelong quest of discernment and attentiveness, trial and error.

The ability to make mistakes, to fall short, to discover and choose the good. These things sound human, right?

St. Ignatius reminds us that “our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created”: our own unique path to praising, reverencing and serving God, to seeing and loving Christ in our neighbors.

Things would be easier if we were all programmed to do that, right? If our primary functions were clearly delineated, and we were each wound up and placed on a track that brought us to our ultimate end.

But that’s not life. Instead, we have the opportunity to engage the mystery of uncovering our deepest selves.

A program like ChatGPT is meant to eliminate mystery, to bring us immediately to the end with as little journey as possible. What Ignatius is talking about is an ongoing spiritual quest, one that is ever-deepening, ever-widening, ever-growing into the fullness of who God is for us.

The French Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, wrote: “The deeper I descend into myself, the more I find God at the heart of my being…the God who pursues in me the task, as endless as the whole sum of centuries, of the incarnation of [Christ].”

That’s the task of being human: discovering God’s indwelling love more and more fully within our very selves, and then incarnating that love for one another.

ChatGPT may be unnerving. But I wonder if this new technology is a reminder to engage more fully with the mystery of who we are and who we are becoming.

We are so much more than what even the best internet search reveals.

This reflection is part of the award-winning weekly email series, “Now Discern This.” If you’d like to get reflections like this one directly in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

a person smiling for the cameraEric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America MagazineNational Catholic ReporterU.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian.