More or less since Nietzsche declared God “dead” nearly 140 years ago, popular wisdom has held that science and religion are irreparably misaligned. However, at a recent conference hosted by the Vatican, I learned that even in the era of artificial intelligence and gene splicing, religious institutions and leaders still have much to contribute to society as both moral compass and source of meaning.
In April this year, the Vatican launched Unite to Cure: A Global Health Care Initiative at the Fourth International Vatican Conference. This international event gathered some of the world’s leading scientists, physicians and ethicists — along with leaders of faith, government officials, businesspeople and philanthropists. The goal was to engage about the cultural, religious and societal implications of breakthrough technologies that improve human health, prevent disease and protect the environment. I had the privilege of participating as a board member of the XPRIZE Foundation.
We are living at a phenomenal point in human history. It’s a moment when our machines are flirting with godlike powers. AI and ever-accelerating innovations in medical technology are enabling humans to live longer than ever. Yet with increased machine capabilities and human longevity come heavy questions of morality and spirituality.
When bodies live longer, so do the souls inside of them. What are the spiritual implications for people who are given an additional 30 or even 50 years of life? Is enhanced longevity meddling with creation, or a complement to it?
As technology disrupts the way we relate to the few remaining physical and spiritual mysteries of humanity, it also disrupts the way we embrace religion.
It is here, at this nexus of technology and spirituality, that the Vatican wisely decided to bring together thinkers from both science and faith.
It was humbling to sit inside the tiny and unconventional country that we call Vatican City, surrounded by the world’s leading scientists, ethicists, venture capitalists and faith leaders. We talked about regenerative medicine, aging reversal, gene editing and cell therapy. We discussed how humanity is shifting from medicine that repairs and remediates toward a system that overtly changes our physical composition. We discussed the incredible augmentations available to the disabled — for example 3D-printed prosthetic limbs. How long before the able-bodied begin to exploit these enhancements to augment their own competitive advantage in an increasingly crowded world? To what extent, if any, should society attempt to control this paradigm shift?
One of the more interesting discussions surrounded how to ensure that humans don’t just live longer, but also better.
What exactly does “living better” entail? Does it imply physical comfort, spiritual well-being, financial security? At this moment in history, we have more instant and unlimited information than the kings and queens of ancient Greece or the Middle Ages could have ever imagined. That technological power is allowing more and more people to become enormously wealthy, at a speed and magnitude that would have been unthinkable for anyone other than a monarch just a century ago.
But are these people living “better”?
In as much as longer-living humans use their accrued wealth to support and encourage the creation of projects as audacious and ambitious as — for example — the Coliseum, I believe the answer is yes. If longevity and riches encourage the average human being to create change on a scale that matches the enormous potential of our exponential times — all the more so.
Yet, others in the room had a different take. For many religious leaders, “better” meant a more sharply defined relationship with God. For some scientists, “better” meant a life that creates fewer emissions and embraces better and smarter technology.
It was astounding, really. In one of the most hallowed spots on earth for the Catholic Church, sharing oxygen and ideas with cardinals and future saints, stood the world’s leading researchers, scientists and corporate leaders, who hold in their hands the technology to extend human life. Together with the clergy of the world’s great monotheistic religions, we held an open dialogue about how to improve the heart and soul of human life while the technology we create continues to advance beyond our ancestors’ wildest imaginations.
As technology disrupts the way we relate to the few remaining physical and spiritual mysteries of humanity, it also disrupts the way we embrace religion. In this conference, the Vatican very correctly leveraged the opportunity for organized religions to disrupt themselves by thinking about how they can be meaningful contributors to the conversation on spiritual, physical and mental well-being in the future.