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A robot equipped with artificial intelligence. A robot equipped with artificial intelligence.   (REUTERS)

Pope: Church’s social teaching can help AI serve the common good

Pope Francis sent a message to participants in a workshop titled, "The 'Good' Algorithm? Artificial Intelligence: Ethics, Law, Health", organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life in the Vatican, February, 26-28.

By Robin Gomes

In the newly emerging discipline of “the ethical development of algorithms” or more simply “algor-ethics”, a critical contribution can be made by the principles of the Church’s social teaching, namely the dignity of the person, justice, subsidiarity and solidarity. 

The Pope made the remark on Friday in a message that was read to participants in a workshop titled, "The 'Good' Algorithm? Artificial Intelligence: Ethics, Law, Health", organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life in the Vatican, February, 26-28.

The Holy Father was scheduled to address the group but because of a “slight indisposition”, he postponed all of Friday’s official audiences outside Casa Santa Marta, where he resides.

Ethical framework and human rights

In his message, the Pope noted that the complexity of the technological world demands of us an increasingly clear ethical framework, so as to make our commitment to serving every individual in his or her integrity and of all people, without discrimination or exclusion, truly effective.

Algor-ethics, he pointed out, can be a bridge enabling those principles to enter concretely into digital technologies through effective cross-disciplinary dialogue.   He, however, stressed that in the encounter between different visions of the world, human rights are an important point of convergence in the search for common ground. 

The “good algorithm”, he said, points to the need for renewed reflection on rights and duties in this area. 

Pope Francis expressed appreciation for their “Call” at the end of the workshop, saying it is “an important step in this direction, with its three fundamental coordinates along which to journey: ethics, education and law. 

Challenges and dangers

The scope and acceleration of the transformations of the digital era, the Pope said, have in fact raised unforeseen problems and situations that challenge our individual and collective ethos. 

On the personal level, the digital age is changing our perception of space, of time and of the body, and on the socio-economic level, users are often reduced to “consumers”, prey to private interests concentrated in the hands of a few.   Algorithms now extract data that enable mental and relational habits to be controlled, for commercial or political ends, frequently without our knowledge. 

The asymmetry, by which a select few know everything about us while we know nothing about them, the Pope said, dulls critical thought and the conscious exercise of freedom.  He also lamented the inequalities that are expanding enormously with knowledge and wealth accumulate in a few hands with grave risks for democratic societies. 

Potential of new technologies

However, these dangers, the Pope said, must not detract us from the immense potential that new technologies offer.   Broader educational effort and solid reasons need to be developed in the pursuit of the common good, even when no immediate advantage is apparent. 

As believers, the Pope said, we ought to allow ourselves to be challenged, so that the word of God and our faith tradition can help us interpret the phenomena of our world and identify paths of humanization.

At the conclusion of the Vatican workshop on Friday, the Pontifical Academy for Life, Microsoft, IBM, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Italian government signed the “Call for an AI Ethics”, a document developed to support an ethical approach to Artificial Intelligence and promote a sense of responsibility among organizations, governments and institutions with the aim to create a future in which digital innovation and technological progress serve human genius and creativity and not their gradual replacement.

At the conclusion of the Vatican workshop, the Pontifical Academy for Life, Microsoft, IBM, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Italian government signed the “Call for an AI Ethics”, a document developed to support an ethical approach to Artificial Intelligence and promote a sense of responsibility among organizations, governments and institutions with the aim to create a future in which digital innovation and technological progress serve human genius and creativity and not their gradual replacement.

28 February 2020, 14:41