Artificial Intelligence and the Church of Africa: An interview with Fr Joel Nkongolo

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Congolese national and Claretian priest Fr Joel Nkongolo recently spoke to Fr Paul Samasumo of Vatican News about AI’s implications or possible impact on the African Church. Fr Nkongolo is currently based in Nigeria.

How would you define or describe Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

Artificial Intelligence encompasses a wide range of technologies and techniques that enable machines to mimic human cognitive functions. Machine learning, a subset of AI, allows systems to learn from data without being explicitly programmed. For example, streaming platforms like Netflix use recommendation algorithms to analyze users’ viewing history and suggest relevant content. Computer vision technology, another aspect of AI, powers facial recognition systems used in security and authentication applications.

Should we be worried and afraid of Artificial Intelligence?

While AI offers numerous benefits, such as improved efficiency, productivity, and innovation, it also raises legitimate concerns. One concern is job displacement, as automation could replace certain tasks traditionally performed by humans. For instance, a study by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that up to 800 million jobs could be automated by 2030. Additionally, there are ethical concerns surrounding AI, such as algorithmic bias, which can perpetuate discrimination and inequality. For example, facial recognition systems have been found to exhibit higher error rates for people with darker skin tones, leading to unfair treatment in areas like law enforcement.

Africa’s journey towards embracing AI seems relatively slow. Is this a good or bad thing?

Africa’s adoption of AI has been relatively slow compared to other regions, attributed to factors such as limited infrastructure, digital literacy, and funding. However, this cautious approach can also be viewed as an opportunity to address underlying challenges and prioritize ethical considerations. For example, Ghana recently established two AI Centres to develop AI capabilities while ensuring ethical AI deployment. By taking a deliberate approach, African countries can tailor AI solutions to address local needs and minimize potential negative impacts.

How do you see Artificial Intelligence affecting or impacting the Church in Africa and elsewhere? Should the Church be worried about Artificial Intelligence?

AI can enhance various aspects of Church operations, such as automating administrative tasks, analyzing congregation demographics for targeted outreach, and providing personalized spiritual guidance through chatbots. However, there are ethical considerations, such as ensuring data privacy and maintaining human connection amid technological advancements. For example, sections of the Church of England utilize AI-powered chatbots to engage with congregants online, offering pastoral support and prayer. While AI can augment the Church’s outreach efforts, it’s essential to maintain human oversight and uphold ethical standards in its use.

How can the Church influence ethical behaviour and good social media conduct?

The Church can leverage its moral authority to promote ethical behaviour and responsible social media use. For instance, Pope Francis has spoken out against the spread of fake news and social media polarisation, emphasizing the importance of truth and dialogue. Additionally, initiatives like “Digital Catholicism” involve leveraging online media technologies as tools for evangelization while simultaneously spreading the message of faith in cyberspace itself. So, by modelling ethical behaviour and offering guidance on digital citizenship, the Church can foster a culture of respect, empathy, and truthfulness in online interactions.

How can parents, guardians, teachers, parish priests, or pastors help young people avoid becoming enslaved by these technologies?

Adults play a crucial role in guiding young people’s use of technology and promoting healthy digital habits. For example, parents and teachers can educate children about the risks of excessive screen time and the importance of balance in their online and offline activities. They can also set limits on device usage, encourage outdoor play, and foster face-to-face social interactions. Moreover, religious leaders can incorporate teachings on mindfulness, self-discipline, and responsible stewardship of technology into their spiritual guidance, helping young people cultivate a healthy relationship with digital media.

Can individuals and society do anything to protect themselves from potential AI harm or abuse by non-democratic governments?

Individuals and civil society organizations can take proactive measures to safeguard against AI abuse by authoritarian regimes. For example, they can advocate for legislation and regulations that protect digital rights, privacy, and freedom of expression. Tools like virtual private networks (VPNs) and encrypted messaging apps can help individuals circumvent government surveillance and censorship. Moreover, international collaboration and solidarity among democratic nations can amplify efforts to hold oppressive regimes accountable for AI misuse and human rights violations.

What would your advice be to those working in education or schools regarding teaching about AI?

Educators have a vital role in preparing students for the AI-driven future by fostering critical thinking, creativity, and ethical decision-making skills. For example, integrating AI literacy into the curriculum can help students understand how AI works, its societal impacts, and ethical considerations. Projects like Google’s AI for Social Good initiative provide educational resources and tools for teaching AI concepts in schools. By empowering students to become responsible AI users and innovators, educators can effectively equip them to navigate the opportunities and challenges of the digital age.

Fr Nkongolo, thank you for your time and help in navigating these issues.

Fr. Paul Samasumo, these examples, comparisons, and statistics illustrate the multifaceted nature of AI and its implications for society, including the Church and education. I hope they provide a comprehensive perspective on these complex issues.