Among the interesting news items in the daily bulletin from the press office of the Holy See on Tuesday of this week was a communiqué from the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. It was announcing the theme of the 2024 World Peace Day message: Artificial Intelligence and Peace.
It was pretty busy bollettino for mid-week in mid-August, which included a potentially significant modification of canon law and a new nuncio to Poland in the person of Archbishop Antonio Filipazzi, most recently nuncio to Nigeria.
Still, the ten-line announcement arguably should have raised more eyebrows – even hackles – than it did on the day, not least because of what it didn’t say.
I mean, if “Top Vatican Think Tank Tackles AI” doesn’t get your blood flowing, are you even paying attention?
This past January, a Vatican-sponsored conference in Vatican City brought together leaders from the great monotheistic traditions, business leaders from across the tech industries, scholars and scientists from a host of leading public and private universities, as well as other stakeholders and civil society representatives to discuss the ethics of AI.
It was a big deal, and it expanded the list of signatories to The Call for AI Ethics, a document originally signed in February 2020 by the Pontifical Academy for Life, Microsoft, IBM, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and Italy’s Ministry of Innovation, to promote an ethical approach to artificial intelligence.
The Call for AI Ethics is organized around a core idea: International organizations, governments, civil society institutions and the private sector should share responsibility for the creation of “a future in which digital innovation and technological progress grant mankind its centrality.”
That sounds terrific, but with AI as with anything else, if everyone is responsible, then no one is.
That’s not to say the Vatican should be responsible, or the pope – who has admitted he isn’t exactly the most tech-savvy fellow – or anyone in particular, but only that the “how” is at least as important as the “what” when it comes to determining responsibility for anything.
There is some real, serious, hard, practical, nuts-and-bolts thinking we all need to do together about regulating and managing the development and application of artificial intelligence, so that transparency, inclusion, accountability, impartiality, reliability, security and privacy are hallmarks of AI and not just buzzwords.
“Pope Francis,” the IHD communiqué says, “calls for an open dialogue on the meaning of these new technologies, endowed with disruptive possibilities and ambivalent effects.” This isn’t the first time Pope Francis has called for such dialogue. To be perfectly fair, he hasn’t only called for it. On this issue, Pope Francis has put his money where his mouth is.
“He recalls the need to be vigilant and to work so that a logic of violence and discrimination does not take root in the production and use of such devices, at the expense of the most fragile and excluded.”
That’s great, but it reminds me of a conversation I had with a scribbler who was covering the Arab Spring a dozen or so years ago, right at the outset in Tunisia and perhaps even before the term had gained currency.
“I’ve spoken to several activist leaders,” the journo said, “and none of them want this to become Iran,” i.e. a transversal reform uprising that spiraled out of control and ended up in fanatical theocracy.
Now, I wasn’t quite old enough to remember the 1979 revolution in Iran, but I had learned enough about it to know that nobody really envisioned the Islamic Republic in the form it eventually took after the overthrow of the Shah. Even the Ayatollah Khomeini was reacting to circumstance and seizing with great alacrity the moment of opportunity, rather than orchestrating events.
In other words, the Iranian people didn’t want the Iranian revolution they got, not when they started revolting.
I’m certainly playing fast and loose with a very complicated and eventful few years of history, and the analogy may limp as they all do, but the point is that big movements with lots of competing interests tend to take on lives of their own. The law of unintended consequences always obtains, and that means no one can ever tell how anything is going to shake out.
“[I]njustice and inequalities fuel conflicts and antagonisms,” but they aren’t the only things that fuel them. Few would argue with the notion that there is “[an] urgent need to orient the concept and use of artificial intelligence in a responsible way, so that it may be at the service of humanity and the protection of our common home,” as the communiqué about the 2024 message also says. Even fewer would strongly contest the idea that such an urgent need “requires that ethical reflection be extended to the sphere of education and law,” as it goes on to say.
On the other hand, legislating in a hurry is always a bad idea. Sometimes it is necessary, the least bad option, but it is still a bad idea. Before that, however, there’s another question all this talk of legislating raises: Who is legislating for whom, and when, and in what precise areas, and – again, most importantly – how?
Are we talking about national legislation, federal legislation, individual state-level legislation, international treaty, UN convention?
These are not mutually exclusive. Some combination of them is already at work and in play, and any serviceable global framework will require all of them in some measure. But, again: How?
“The protection of the dignity of the person, and concern for a fraternity effectively open to the entire human family,” the communiqué continues, “are indispensable conditions for technological development to help contribute to the promotion of justice and peace in the world.”
In other news: Water is wet, and the sky is blue.
Pope Francis and the Vatican have a real opportunity here, to leverage the Church’s expertise in humanity, to double down on the constants of human nature, to draw on her institutional memory of historical successes and failures at bottling lightning and riding the technological tiger, and thus to contribute to the global public discourse on a most pressing concern.
The Pope and the Vatican can do this. They are uniquely placed to do just this. Doing it, however, will mean abandoning the talk of “rethinking” ageless anthropological truths as though we need, ahem, to reinvent the wheel.
By all means, let’s rethink the whole business of technological advancement, and let’s face fearlessly the realities of AI and the dangerous potential in its development. Let’s even continue to be a part of the conversation about “transhumanism” through initiatives like Humanity 2.0 at the Pontifical Lateran University, under the direction of Prof. Philip Larrey (to whose 2018 collection, Connected World: From Automated Work to Virtual Wars this scribbler contributed a chapter, a fact I mention only to prove I’m no more than half a Luddite).
What the pope and the Vatican can bring to the discussion is historical and cultural awareness that comes from remembering what end Gilgamesh made, and Icarus, and Minos and Pasiphaë, not to mention Frankenstein’s monster and the island of Dr. Moreau.
There’s an early James Cameron movie everybody should see, too, before it becomes a documentary.
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