Pope Francis calls for ‘ethical and responsible’ AI development

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Pope Francis greets Bishop Paul Tighe, secretary of the Dicastery for Culture and Education, during a meeting with leaders from the tech industry at the Vatican March 27, 2023. CNS photo/Vatican Media

VATICAN CITY. Pope Francis asked tech leaders to measure the value of their innovations not in processing power or profit potential, but in their capacity to promote human dignity.

In a meeting at the Vatican March 27 with scientists, engineers, businesspeople, and lawyers working across the tech industry, the pope reflected on the social and cultural impact of artificial intelligence.  

The benefits of artificial intelligence and automated learning for humanity will be realized only if developers act in an ethical and responsible way that respects the intrinsic dignity of each person, the pope said.

But he expressed concern that such respect is missing when, for instance, artificially intelligent software is used in producing legal sentences by analyzing an individual’s criminal record and generalized data.

“An individual’s past behavior should not be used to deny him or her the opportunity to change, grow, and contribute to society,” he said. “We cannot allow algorithms to limit or condition respect for human dignity, nor can we allow them to exclude compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and, above all, an openness to hope for personal change.”

Technology experts fear that the data used to build algorithms in artificially intelligent legal software may amplify pre-existing biases in justice systems, further oppressing already marginalized groups.

“That data can be contaminated by prejudices and social preconceptions,” said the pope. “The fundamental value of a person cannot be measured by a set of data.”

He noted how digital technologies have increased global inequality both economically and in terms of political and social influence. Such inequality, he said, is rooted in a “false sense of meritocracy.”

“There is a risk of conceiving the economic advantage of a few as earned or merited, while the poverty of many is seen, in a certain way, as their fault,” he said.

Pope Francis invited the industry leaders to consider how their innovations may create a more equal and inclusive society.

“Are our national and international institutions able to hold technology companies accountable for the social and cultural impact of their products? Is there a risk that increased inequality can compromise our sense of human and social solidarity?” he asked.

The pope recalled the ethical principles in AI development agreed to by religious, government and tech industry leaders at the Vatican: transparency, inclusion, responsibility, impartiality, reliability, security, and privacy.

In January, executives from Microsoft and IBM as well as representatives from the Muslim and Jewish communities met at the Vatican to sign a document calling for a human-centered approach to AI development in which the principles were agreed upon.

The document advocated for establishing “an outlook in which AI is developed with a focus not on technology, but rather for the good of humanity and of the environment.”

At the March meeting, the pope thanked the tech leaders for engaging in discussions on responsible technology use that are “open to religious values,” and said that dialogue between religious believers and non-believers on science and ethics “is a path to peacebuilding and integral human development.”

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