AI: Pope expresses concern over 'technocratic' future

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When Pope Francis became the first leader of the Catholic Church to address a Group of Seven summit, a gathering of leaders from the world's most developed economies, he thrust one of the world's oldest institutions into the heart of a global debate on the development of cutting-edge technologies.

Artificial intelligence, the pope warned presidents and prime ministers in southern Italy June 14, runs the risk of locking the world order in a "technocratic paradigm."

"No innovation is neutral," the pope told the leaders. Rather technology "represents a form of order in social relations and an arrangement of power, thus enabling certain people to perform specific actions while preventing others from performing different ones." He added that technology "always includes the worldview of those who invented and developed it."

Often seen as an institution at the crossroads of the world -- a bridge between East and West, Global North and Global South -- the Vatican, with Pope Francis at the helm, is positioning itself as a partner to discuss AI ethics with key players in its development to break down the impending technologic divide before it is established.

Only recently has the pope made AI a central theme of his pontificate. He chose artificial intelligence as the theme for his messages for World Day of Peace and World Day of Social Communications this year. The Pontifical Academies for Sciences and Social Sciences recently held a conference on AI and well-being that brought industry leaders to the Vatican to discuss technology's impact on human flourishing.

Since 2020, the Pontifical Academy for Life has been promoting the "Rome Call for AI Ethics," a document intended to promote a sense of responsibility on ensuring developing AI technologies remain at the service of humankind and do not threaten its dignity. Microsoft, IBM and Cisco have all signed the document, and leaders of major world religions will sign it as well during a July meeting in Hiroshima, Japan.

The Centesimus Annus Foundation, a Vatican nonprofit organization that seeks to promote the church's social teaching on finance and economics, hosted a June 21-22 conference to discuss generative artificial intelligence and the "technocratic paradigm" mentioned by Pope Francis.

Among the speakers -- academics and leaders in government and industry -- was Franciscan Father Paolo Benanti, an ethics professor at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University and an adviser to Pope Francis on AI issues.

In his speech, Father Benanti noted that due to the omnipresence of technology, "we have transformed reality into a software-defined reality."

That means that although people still engage with physical goods, such as a car, the "power" of modern cars, such as Teslas, is their software -- the code that exists within the car's computer and enables it to run -- which is only licensed and not owned by the purchaser.

"So I bought the piece of hardware, but what makes this piece able to work and function is not my property. It's a license that is someone else's property," he said at the conference in the Vatican June 21.

"It's the software that defines the nature of the reality that is in front of you, (then) who owns the software, owns the power, owns the reality and has the ability to define what is allowed and what is not allowed."

While this has been the case for technology in the past decade, such as with smartphones, AI is significant in that "all the processes that we digitize are centralized in the cloud, and who will own the cloud will own the processes."

That concentration of power is a concern for institutions beyond the Vatican as well. Father Benanti, who is a member of the United Nations' AI Advisory Body, shared that a concern for the U.N. is how to build technology capacity for the Global South while avoiding a situation of people being "colonized" by software developers.

He stressed that establishing an ethical framework for any technology, and in particular AI, entails "opening the black box" in order to make known the mechanisms that underpin their behavior for users.

OpenAI's ChatGPT, for example, is a so-called "black box" that does not provide explanation or rationale for its output.

How society will come to grasp the software-defined reality and centralization of computing power "will describe what kind of society, which kind of democracy, we will leave to the next generation" Father Benanti said.

To that end, he proposed using the church's social doctrine as a model to shift the building of AI tools away from the pursuit of progress -- "the ability to do something faster, speedier, in a much more efficient way" -- and rather toward development, which prioritizes serving the common good.

That process, Father Benanti said, begins by calling on society to establish the ethical limits of artificially intelligent technology.

"That means allowing human beings to be enriched by AI tools, (while) maintaining the control of the process and being able to have this kind of process compatible with democracy," he said.

Meeting with the conference participants June 22, Pope Francis echoed Father Benanti's sentiments, calling for a "regulatory, economic and financial environment that limits the monopoly of a few and allows development to benefit all of humanity."

He also asked the experts to deepen their study on what humankind's relationship with AI will be like in the future, stressing the need to educate children on AI from a young age so that they may develop a critical approach to it, to consider how AI technologies will impact labor markets and prepare workers for the transition and to plan for the consequences of AI in security and human relationships.

Pope Francis ended his audience with a "provocation," he said: "Are we sure we want to continue calling 'intelligence' that which is not intelligent?"

"Let us think about it," he said, "and ask ourselves whether the misuse of this word that is so important, so human, is not already a surrender to technocratic power."