Vatican looks at ethics of artificial intelligence

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi cited Apple founder Steve Jobs, saying that technology must be welded to humanism, at a recent Rome conference on ethics and artificial intelligence (AI).

He was responding to Daniele Mancini, the Italian ambassador to the Holy See, who had opened the discussion by comparing humans, faced by a tsunami of technology, to a surfer in precarious balance on a surfboard.

Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and Mancini together organized the conference as a lecture in the Vatican’s Courtyard of the Gentiles series, which brings Catholic and non-Catholic leaders together to discuss issues affecting both the Church and the modern world. The Pontifical Council organizes discussions, and this time it was in the Borromeo Palace, which in the 16th century was built as an out-of-town residence for Pope Pius IV and since 1929 has been the Italian Embassy to the Holy See.

The setting was historic, but the focus was on the future, which seems glorious to some but to others causes confusion and even fright. It is a future increasingly molded by AI, although the debates that AI will cause have already begun to creep into the present. The European Parliament is discussing laws about robots that would make them legally electronic persons who make autonomous decisions. The European bishops have objected to this since this would place robots on the same level as human persons.

Brave new world

The subject is vast because AI will increasingly affect almost all spheres of our society, from our daily life, work, privacy and national security to our concept of creation and what it is to be human. Our computers will be talking to us, smiling humanoids will be driving trucks and winning marathons, and online programs will be writing pop songs and even learning from experience. At least that is the promise — or the threat. The Rome conference did not aim to tackle all these issues but to spur discussions on AI between Catholics and others.

One of the key speakers was Luciano Folidi, a professor of philosophy and information at Oxford University and an ethics adviser for large technology companies. However, this doesn’t stop him from being wary of the power of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, or criticizing politicians for allowing the internet, the web and social media to acquire huge influence without imposing appropriate rules.

He warns that the current delegation of infosphere control to corporations could have disastrous socio-political and cultural results. Their control over internet data allows our knowledge and awareness to be transformed into quarterly marketing strategies and predictive analytics that inevitably prioritize the short-term profit over the long-term consequences.

The second main speaker, Sebastiano Maffettone, a professor of political philosophy at LUISS, a university in Rome, likewise deplored politicians’ failure to understand and govern the complex issues raised by AI. He claimed that its “dematerialization” of reality encouraged fake news, post-truth understandings and emotional rather than rational discussions.

Forced Retirement
Advances in artificial intelligence may one day cause workers to be replaced with more efficient robots. Here is a timeline, based on a survey of AI researchers distributed by Katja Grace along with the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, of the predicted year when AI-controlled technology will be capable of performing the following tasks:

A better world?

The third main speaker, Franciscan Father Paolo Benanti, is an engineer and theologian who teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he holds courses on the implications of advances in neuroscience and technology on ethics and values.

While acknowledging the risks of AI, he also pointed to opportunities provided by the overcoming of biological limits with the assistance of smart machines and sophisticated algorithms. He maintained that technology has brought many benefits to Africa, “where it is easier to have a cellphone than a bathroom.” AI aids the fight against diseases in Africa through its vast data-gathering ability and through the diffusion of books where libraries and bookshops are lacking. Moreover, it is easier for missionaries travelling through a territory to have all the liturgical texts needed on a smartphone rather than hauling liturgical books.

New technology brings new problems, however, especially with regard to the two recurring subjects throughout the conference: work and driverless cars. Routine work is being taken over by machines at an accelerating rate. But as Pope Francis has said, loss of a job means more than loss of income. It can be a blow to dignity. Several speakers mentioned the need for educational initiatives to offset the future loss of low-skilled jobs.

Driverless cars offer another set of questions. What will happen if a driverless car has a choice between killing a child pedestrian or crashing, likely killing the passenger in the process? Would the person acquiring the car be informed of how it would behave beforehand? Would he or she be prepared to buy a car, knowing the car would kill the child in the circumstance described above? Could all circumstances be foreseen?

New tech, new questions

With the rise of AI, questions that have been pondered for ages have returned with greater relevancy, especially one of the most fundamental of them all: Just what is it that makes us human?

Father Benanti told Our Sunday Visitor about the moral grayness of hyper-intelligent machines and the philosophical questions they raise. Should a machine with humanlike capabilities — that even surpasses humans’ abilities — have human rights? He calls for a new discernment: “[W]hat’s called the fourth Industrial Revolution is modifying not only what humans do but human nature itself. So it is urgent that a ‘new humanism’ be developed which can formulate — with discernment — the right questions, shaped by a holistic vision and interdisciplinary and multi-discipline knowledge which maintains the capacity to distinguish good from evil.”

But a conscience, he stressed, was one of the most important differentiators between man and machine.

Several said that AI is pushing us to see that, essentially, humans are unique in their desire for relationships with other persons and the capacity to sustain them. Father Benanti described the problem with the speed at which AI is changing.

“It’s a great problem because machines so fast and so capable of changing the reality on which they operate make control very difficult.” But he would not go so far as apocalyptic forecasts about the effects of AI — provided humans collaborate to ensure the machines continue to serve humankind and the planet.

Desmond O’Grady writes from Rome.