VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Even though today's modern tools and
technologies are hardly human, the Pontifical Academy for Life is
zeroing in on the world of robots and machines powered by artificial
While the academy's focus is on the protection of human life and
dignity, the rapidly shifting and radical capabilities of robotics are
having an ever-increasing impact on human lives, people's relationships,
communities and creation, said Jesuit Father Carlo Casalone, an academy
member and consultant.
The need to reflect on the effects, opportunities and risks posed by
artificial intelligence and robotics has led the pro-life academy to
launch a special look at this complex field, adding robotics to its list
of specialized projects, which already include palliative care,
neuroscience, bioethics and human genome editing.
A major workshop on "Robo-ethics: Humans, Machines and Health" will
be held at the Vatican Feb. 25-26 as part of this increased study; the
workshop will focus on the use of robots and artificial intelligence,
specifically in medicine and health care.
The use of industrial and personal-service robots is on the rise,
according to industry reports. They are being used in manufacturing,
housekeeping, assisting with surgery and even caring for the elderly.
People with reduced mobility can be assisted with brain control
technology, which converts brain waves into digital signals that can
command or control external devices, such as artificial limbs or
Father Casalone, who studied medicine and worked as a cardiologist
before joining the Society of Jesus in 1984, helped organize the
workshop. He became a member of the pontifical academy in 2017 and works
in its scientific section.
He told Catholic News Service in December that the workshop will
bring together ethicists, health care workers and researchers, including
Hiroshi Ishiguro, a Japanese robotics engineer who creates humanoid
robots and promotes discussion about the essence of being human. His lab
has developed the interactive "Actroid," a lifelike humanoid robot that
can operate autonomously or be teleoperated and created an uncanny
replica of Ishiguro known as the "Geminoid."
Father Casalone said the academy wanted the workshop to include
experts like Ishiguro who could explain "what sort of vision" guides
their work and so that members could "truly listen to what is going on
in today's world and to engage with this historic moment in time."
"We are seeking to be fully aware of what's happening so that we know
what is possible" in the rapidly advancing world of "cognitive
machines" and to highlight the ethical, social, cultural and economic
impact these tools may have.
For example, cheaper automated machine labor may threaten emerging
economies, and mineral-rich African nations often see their resources
extracted and exported without receiving the benefits in what has become
a new "robot divide," Father Casalone said.
Using robots for military applications can be "very dangerous and
very deceptive" if nations use such machines to cover up their
responsibility and destroy others "behind the scenes," he said.
Automated systems also can lead to "a sort of gaming mentality" when
soldiers can control weaponry remotely, far away from its effects.
Home automation or "domotics" -- such as security systems or robot
vacuum cleaners -- also presents certain risks, he said, if "houses
begin to be built in a way that makes them more robot-friendly, more
suitable for machines than for humans."
And the use of robots in assisting the elderly or infirm, while it
"could be of great help," could also "risk triggering an attitude of
delegating" the care of the most fragile and vulnerable in society "as
if it were a task to be entrusted to machines" and not to fellow human
beings, he said.
Similar problems may "also apply to the natural world," he said, for
example, when using robots for farming and livestock "changes our
relationship with animals" and nature.
Father Casalone said the answer isn't a stance against technology but
"guiding development so that it respects human dignity and the common
good as much as possible."
"It is about becoming aware of and agreeing about regulating these
radically new possibilities we have before us, which are able to
increasingly and more deeply affect living beings and the human body,"
The two-day workshop in February will not be proposing specific
guidelines, he said, but rather will lay the groundwork for drawing up
"some criteria, given what is at play with the emergence of these
cognitive systems in our lives."
The radical and pervasive impact today's new technologies will have
on human beings and their relations "demands greater oversight," public
discussion and concern not just among experts or special interest
groups, but by everyone, he said.
Throughout history, science and technology have invented or developed
new capabilities that have taken the world by surprise and "transformed
our lives," Father Casalone said. "So, we have to expect something new"
will always be around the corner and be ready to respond.
Current controls on "the atomic bomb and its destructive potential,"
he said, show how human beings are capable of not using every new
technology, "which means there are options for guiding development" so
that it can better respect human life.
"This, in every case, is what we are committed to," he said.