Technology Challenges for the Next Pope

With the passing of Pope John Paul the II comes an opportunity to look back — as well as ahead — at the kinds of technological changes that can occur in 30 years. In the late ’70s we didn’t have cell phones or GPS navigation systems; cloning people was the stuff of science fiction stories; and IBM was THE provider of technology to the world.

The definition of life had to do with how much time had passed since conception, and, at least at the time, the argument didn’t take into account breakthroughs in medical technology.

New Times

Now we are cloning pets and farm animals, and people are not only in touch on cell phones, they can talk to each other on the Internet — and, as a result, no public figures, particularly priests, have a private life. In addition, the technology industry isn’t just multi-company, it is multi-country.

With the ability of technology to replace many, if not virtually all, critical body functions even after the brain fails, the disputes surrounding the definition of life have increased dramatically.

That’s a lot of change, and looking forward, future change is going to start coming a lot more quickly. As a result, the next 30 years will contain a number of unique challenges for the new Pontiff.

Virtualizing the Bible

The movie “The Passion of Christ” certainly opened a number of eyes to how real an interpretation of the Bible can be and it lays the groundwork for what is an obvious next step — the Bible SIM.

In ten years, our ability to render to movie-like realities in real-time will have been reached. Already there are sites like’s “Pimp my Weapon” (which is actually rather entertaining in a twisted sort of way) for creating shows using game engines for an audience of young viewers. In 20 years or so, our ability to place ourselves in these virtual worlds will reach unprecedented levels, and it would be natural for someone to virtualize the Bible and create a virtual Bible world.

Being able to talk to a virtual Jesus or God is just the beginning, because Christianity is not the only religion out there — it isn’t even the biggest, and that suggests that you could have virtual debates between religious icons who themselves are simulated to various degrees of accuracy. How about a debate between Mohammed and Jesus on the legitimacy of the separation of Church and State? How about the likelihood of virtual reality TV in this vein?

Looking at the Upside

The positive side for the new Pope could include exciting new ways of educating children about religion in a way that has never been more personal as they experience first-hand the events as described in the Bible. The downside is this could dramatically increase the disagreements around what actually did happen and create a generation of well founded experts who fundamentally disagree with current Church positions — and feel they know the material far more deeply then any older generation.

The competing representations of the events surrounding the birth and life of Jesus could be hard-fought. Some could even feel that a violent response is needed to address what they see as an attack on their fundamental beliefs. We have already seen people get addicted to online games; what level of addiction could result from the ability to talk to a good simulation of God? And what could result if the wrong answer was given to a critical question and that answer resulted in a catastrophe?

Expanding on this virtualization idea, could you actually have a virtual church where the Pope spoke to all Catholics directly, and to them, personally? We have drive-through and TV-based ministries, so why not a virtual Vatican? The Pope would always look young and never look sick. If the Pope was on holiday no one would ever need to know, and the Pope could avoid most types of physical risk.

But, for a religious order that hasn’t changed its dress code for centuries, considering such opportunities may be seen as just short of blasphemy. Nevertheless, ideas like these will come up at an increasing pace, and, looking at the current Cardinals, there will be new ones coming relatively soon, expecting change.

Artificial Intelligence

If the Church believes strongly that a woman who has lost brain function is still alive and a fetus at its earliest stages is human, what will they think about a virtual something that emulates a person to the highest degree? We have a number of advanced universities and well funded companies working at a feverish pace to be the first to create true artificial intelligence.

Creating it in the real world is probably more then 20 years out, due to the size of things, but creating it in the virtual world could start happening as early as next year. Granted, the first attempts will be rudimentary, but they should advance quickly. An obvious product — given how much people will currently pay to clone a pet — is a virtual clone of a loved one. Basically, what if we could capture their behaviors to such a degree that the “virtual” person is to most degrees identical to the real one?

There are actually some games that do a little of this now. In one racing XBox game you can model another player and race against that model if that other player is not online. This will migrate to more complex characters, and the power we will have in about ten years should be enough to create an amazingly accurate artificial person.

It shouldn’t be hard to get these constructs to send e-mail, make phone calls, and otherwise behave much like the loved one behaved, perhaps softening the blow of a loss, or maybe to offset the existence of a less-than-ideal real spouse, boss, or child. To some they will look alive, and dealing with that could easily be a very big problem as we move into the 2020s.

Now let’s take that extra step: We are likely to be able to interface into the human body in a complex way in about 15 years. What if, in the case of catastrophic brain injury, we tie the body into an artificial personality? Is that life? Could the Pope himself continue to live on with such technology, and should he?

A Word on Blogs

How about in the near term? What about blogs? Companies have quickly found that executives who blog can pre-release products, embarrass their companies, and open the firm up to litigation. On the other hand, blogs can bring people closer together. While short of becoming some sort of e-mail-based confessional, which I’m sure someone has asked about by now, blogging could be a great way for Church officials to stay in touch with the Vatican and with their parishioners. If allowed, however, how should it the forums be recorded, monitored, protected?

Those who may be entering the priesthood over the next 20 years will have grown up with blogging, will have experienced higher levels of virtual reality then ever before, will have seen things that were simply not even remotely possible during the last 30 years.

While new generations have always grown up differently than the ones before, the speed of change for coming generations will be unprecedented. Organizations which aren’t flexible (and the Catholic Church is the antithesis of flexible) in the face of massive change often break, and that, in the end, may be the biggest problem the new Pope has to face.

Were I a smart Cardinal, I think I’d support someone other then me as a candidate for Pope, but regardless, I wish whoever does get the job the very best. He’ll need it.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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