Vatican conference ponders who really holds the power of AI

(Photo: Unsplash/Simone Savoldi)

Experts on Artificial Intelligence met at the Vatican on Thursday to discuss the implications of this ascendant technology — which Pope Francis hopes to inject with Christian morals and ethics — while calling for international regulation.

"What has happened in the past 70 years is that society is guided by software," said Fr. Paolo Benanti, a Franciscan and a theologian who advises Pope Francis on questions of AI, during his speech at the Vatican event.

"Whoever has the software, has the power," added Benanti, who is also a member of the United Nations' AI Advisory Body.

The conference, titled "Algorithm at the Service of Man: Communicating in the Time of Artificial Intelligence," is the latest in a number of events organized by the Vatican to address growing concerns over AI and its applications.

Through formal and informal channels, the Vatican and Pope Francis have created networks in Silicon Valley and made connections with major players in the fields of technology and communications to promote an ethical approach to AI. In January, Francis made AI the central theme of his message for World Day of Peace, and in June he became the first pontiff to attend a G7 meeting where he spoke about the ethical ramifications of AI.

Speaking to the leaders of the U.S., U.K., Italy, France, Canada, Germany and Japan, the pope said that while AI represents "a true cognitive-industrial revolution," the final say must "always be left to the human person."

Francis spoke about machine learning and AI again in his public message for the World Day of Social Communication, where he warned of AI's ability to "pollute" our understanding of reality through fake news and deep-fake images. The pope mentioned he was also a victim of the highly realistic AI replicas that can be quick to go viral online.

The world is at a crossroads, he said, where unregulated AI risks furthering discrimination, polarization and injustice. "On one hand we face the specter of a new slavery, on the other of delivering freedom; on one hand there is the possibility that a few will condition the thoughts of many, on the other that everyone may take part in elaborating our beliefs," Francis said.

The pope's message was the inspiring document for the Vatican conference on Thursday, where experts spoke about the power that influential financial interests will have in shaping the future of AI.

"The great tech producers are infusing our computers with artificial intelligence," Benanti said about the increasing presence and agency of AI in everyday devices. "This is a challenge that we are not yet prepared for," he added.

The vice director general of Italy's Agency for National Cybersecurity, Nunzia Ciardi, also warned at the conference of the influence held by leading AI developers.

"Artificial intelligence is made up of massive economic investments that only large superpowers can afford and through which they ensure a very important geopolitical dominance and access to the large amount of data that AI must process to produce outputs," Ciardi said.

"You could say that we are colonized by AI, which is managed by select companies that brutally rack through our data," she added.

Participants agreed that international organizations must enforce stronger regulations for the use and advancement of AI technologies.

"We need guardrails, because what is coming is a radical transformation that will change real and digital relations and require not only reflection but also regulation," Benanti said.

The "Rome Call for AI Ethics," a document signed by IBM, Microsoft, Cisco and U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization representatives, was promoted by the Vatican's Academy for Life and lays out guidelines for promoting ethics, transparency and inclusivity in AI.

Other religious communities have also joined the "Rome Call," including the Anglican Church and Jewish and Muslim representatives. On July 9, representatives from Eastern religions will gather for a Vatican-sponsored event to sign the "Rome Call" in Hiroshima, Japan. The location was decided to emphasize the dangerous consequences of technology when unchecked.

Speaking to participants at another Vatican conference focused on AI on June 22, Pope Francis challenged attendants to rethink the way we define artificial intelligence.

"Are we sure we want to continue calling 'intelligence' that which is not intelligent?" he asked, inviting participants to "ask ourselves whether the misuse of this word that is so important, so human, is not already a surrender to technocratic power."

© Religion News Service