Artificial intelligence. Androids. Transhumanism. Once just fodder for pulp science fiction, technological advances over the past 30 years have brought these subjects to the forefront of any discussion about the future.

Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Vatican’s Council for Culture, has been trying to make sure the Church is part of that discussion.

”Technology runs and proposes new things at a speed that theology and other paths of human knowledge fail to follow,” Ravasi told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on Sunday.

Ravasi runs the Courtyard of the Gentiles, an initiative first proposed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 to dialogue with non-believers. The name comes from the space set aside at Herod’s Temple that was accessible to non-Jews who wanted to speak to rabbis and other Jewish authorities about God and religion.

The Courtyard is currently hosting a series of meetings on future technology, and what effect it could have on what it means to be human.

Right now, major corporations such as IBM, Apple, and Facebook are pouring money into developing Artificial Intelligence (AI). Although the idea of a conscious computer system still exists only in the realm of science fiction, one of the major tasks people want AI for is to create “bots” for customer service, which should respond to people in such a way that they can’t tell they aren’t talking to a person.

In other words, a computer which isn’t conscious, but no one can really tell.

Meanwhile, “transhumanism” is the idea of transforming the human body through technological progress.

Some of this is already happening, and can be a good thing: Pacemakers, high-tech artificial limbs, and other new medical devices have improved the lives of millions. In a very real way, “cyborgs” have lived among us for years.

Other examples of a “transhumanist” future can be seen with Google Glass, the headset which could record what you were seeing, as well as overlay information into your field of view; and the idea of permanent implants to replace credit cards (and possibly many of the functions of your smartphone), which is already being tested in some countries.

These technologies are not inherently wrong, yet may soon present serious ethical dilemmas.

If an artificial limb becomes “better than the original,” is it okay for a person to upgrade?

If you can record everything you see, should you? Is it any different than an enhanced memory? And who should have access to the images?

But before you can even discuss the implications of the latest technology, yet another gadget hits the market raising new questions.

Ravasi expressed concern over the “overproduction of technological gadgets,” and complained of “an era of bulimia in the means, and atrophy in the ends.”

The cardinal said one problem is schools and universities do not cover enough general anthropology, and humanity finds itself “flattened” in the onslaught of technological change.  

“If I learn to create robots with a high level of human attributes, if I develop an artificial intelligence, if I intervene in a substantial way with the nervous system: I’m not only making a big technological advance, in many cases very valuable for therapeutic medical purposes,” Ravasi said. “I’m also making a real anthropological leap, touching on issues such as freedom, responsibility, guilt, conscience and – if we want – the soul.”

The cardinal said “the digital natives” who have grown up in this new era are functionally different from older people, “often overlapping the relationship between real and virtual, and the traditional way of considering what is true and false. It is as if they were in a video game.”

(Ravasi’s concern is more prescient than even he might know: Many of the technological advances, especially in the field of virtual reality, are being made in the game industry, where the ethical questions about the technological advances are often overshadowed by the “cool factor.”)

Ravasi also expressed concern about how biotechnology is changing the role of humanity from being a “guardian of nature” into being a “kind of creator.”

“Synthetic biology, the creation of viruses and bacteria that do not exist in nature, is an expression of this tendency,” he said. “All these operations have ethical and cultural implications that need to be considered.”

Ravasi is not the first Vatican official to speak on these themes.

In 2004, the International Theological Commission issued a document on “Human Persons created in the Image of God.”

The document affirms that “bodiliness is essential to personal identity,” and calls for people to “exercise a responsible stewardship over the biological integrity of human beings created in the image of God.”

The document reads:

Because the body, as an intrinsic part of the human person, is good in itself, fundamental human faculties can only be sacrificed to preserve life. After all, life is a fundamental good that involves the whole of the human person. Without the fundamental good of life, the values – like freedom – that are in themselves higher than life itself also expire. Given that man was also created in God’s image in his bodiliness, he has no right of full disposal of his own biological nature. God himself and the being created in his image cannot be the object of arbitrary human action.

It goes on to list conditions for any bodily intervention:

For the application of the principle of totality and integrity, the following conditions must be met: (1) there must be a question of an intervention in the part of the body that is either affected or is the direct cause of the life-threatening situation; (2) there can be no other alternatives for preserving life; (3) there is a proportionate chance of success in comparison with drawbacks; and (4) the patient must give assent to the intervention. The unintended drawbacks and side-effects of the intervention can be justified on the basis of the principle of double effect.

Yet in many ways, the document talks past the conversation now happening, especially since those having the conversation are often working out very specific problems – how to fix this medical disorder, how to create a better customer interface, how to create a more realistic game – and are not considering the larger picture they may be helping to create.

Ravasi is hoping the new dialogue will help everyone stand back and see that picture, and seriously consider the implications of what they are doing.

“It is essential for believers and nonbelievers to re-propose the great cultural, spiritual, and ethical values like a positive shock against superficiality,” – the cardinal said – “now that we are living through an anthropological and cultural change which is complex and problematic, but is certainly also exciting.”