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Science and religion? Germany church holds mass led by ChatGPT

By NICK GARCIA Published Jun 14, 2023 4:52 pm

In an unlikely crossover between science and religion, a church in Germany held a mass led by artificial intelligence platform ChatGPT.

The Associated Press reported that at St. Paul's Church in the Bavarian town of Fuerth, the chatbot was personified by an avatar of a bearded man on a huge screen above the altar. It then began preaching to over 300 people.

“Dear friends, it is an honor for me to stand here and preach to you as the first artificial intelligence at this year’s convention of Protestants in Germany,” the avatar said, which AP noted had an "expressionless face and monotonous voice."

Four different avatars—two young women and two young men—"led" the entire service according to AP.

University of Vienna theologian Jonas Simmerlein created the 40-minute service, which included sermon, prayers, and music. He, however, told AP that he rather "accompanied" ChatGPT, which made "about 98%" of the service.

Simmerlein said he asked ChatGPT, "We are at the church congress, you are a preacher… what would a church service look like?" He also asked it to include psalms, prayers, and a blessing at the end.

“You end up with a pretty solid church service,” Simmerlein recalled telling the AI.

The AI, according to AP, preached about leaving the past behind, focusing on the challenges of the present, overcoming fear of death, and never losing trust in Jesus Christ.

The church service was part of a Protestant convention that takes place every two years in Germany. According to AP, tens of thousands of believers pray, sing, and discuss their faith, as well as talk about current world affairs like global warming, the war in Ukraine—and AI.

Some churchgoers laugh when the AI delivers the sermon with a deadpan expression.

Others, meanwhile, found it "off-putting" as it went along.

“There was no heart and no soul,” Heiderose Schmidt, a 54-year-old IT worker, told AP. “The avatars showed no emotions at all, had no body language and were talking so fast and monotonously that it was very hard for me to concentrate on what they said.”

Anna Puzio, a 28-year-old researcher on the ethics of technology from the University of Twente in The Netherlands, meanwhile told AP she sees a lot of opportunities in the use of AI in religion, such as making religious services more accessible and inclusive for believers.

Yet Puzio noted there are also fears that AI may easily deceive people.

“Also, we don’t have only one Christian opinion, and that’s what AI has to represent as well,” she's quoted as saying. “We have to be careful that it’s not misused for such purposes as to spread only one opinion.”

Simmerlein also told AP that he doesn't look to replace religious leaders with AI, only try to help them with their everyday work. He noted that since some pastors seek inspiration in literature, he thought AI can help bring ideas about a sermon.

Through AI's assistance in writing a sermon, Simmerlein told AP a pastor may be able to focus on other important duties.

At the same time, he acknowledged its limitations in the context of using AI in church, such as the absence of real interaction between the believers and ChatGPT.

ChatGPT was developed by OpenAI, a San Francisco-based research and development company. It has taken the world by storm with its ability to generate finely crafted texts like essays or poems in just seconds.

AI platforms like ChatGPT have already been a cause for concern, especially in the academe where some students allegedly use them to write papers and answer exams.

Economists from Goldman Sachs, a global investment bank, also predicted that AI platforms like ChatGPT could affect 300,000 million full-time jobs around the world, saying 18% of work globally could be computerized.

AI has also been criticized for generating artworks and even fake, misleading images, like that of Pope Francis wearing a puffer jacket.