The pope’s plan to fight back against evil AI

Pope Francis waves to worshippers taking photos as he arrives for the weekly general audience on November 6, 2019, at St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican.
Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images

On Friday, Pope Francis backed a document that outlines how artificial intelligence, including facial recognition technology, should be regulated. This so-called “Rome Call for AI Ethics” carries the endorsement of the Vatican as well as Microsoft and IBM. Believe it or not, the future of AI is actually one of the pope’s passion projects — and greatest worries.

The Vatican’s interest in the technology is hardly new, and several of its pontifical academies — essentially research societies under the Pope’s authority — are hard at work studying what AI, robotics, and other emerging technologies will mean for the Catholic faith and humanity at large. Still, the document is a sign that organized religion is increasingly interested in weighing in on the ethics of artificial intelligence and, in the case of the Vatican, working alongside large tech companies in the process.

Six general principles for the use of artificial intelligence are at the center of the Rome Call, which declares that ethics must be integral to an algorithm’s initial design. But notably, none of the outlined principles are particularly new ideas. The pope’s pledge embraces the values that many AI ethics experts have already called for by pointing to values of transparency, nondiscrimination, and the right to privacy. That somewhat echoes some of the nonbinding AI guidelines the European Union released last year, as well as the Trump administration’s guidance for the federal regulation of artificial intelligence (released in January).

“AI systems must be conceived, designed and implemented to serve and protect human beings and the environment in which they live,” the document reads. “This fundamental outlook must translate into a commitment to create living conditions (both social and personal) that allow both groups and individual members to strive to fully express themselves where possible.”

Alongside these principles is a mandate from the Vatican and its affiliates for AI to be “explainable” to humans. In other words, as artificial intelligence is increasingly applied in consequential contexts — like algorithms that screen our resumes and determine whether we’re granted parole — we need to understand how artificially intelligent technology makes decisions. AI ethics advocates argue that such “explainability” is one of the key ways we can hold artificial-intelligence-based systems accountable.

The Rome Call also emphasizes that artificial intelligence should not be discriminatory, echoing board concerns about algorithmic bias. Depending on who builds them, how they’re built, and the data on which they’re trained, computer systems can end up mimicking and even amplifying societal racism, sexism, and other forms of bias. This is bad, says the pope.

Also (maybe) bad: facial recognition, one of the most controversial applications of artificial intelligence. This is a particularly buzzworthy topic, as the fallout of the Clearview AI scandal demonstrates how facial recognition technology raises significant concerns about security and human rights. However, the Vatican’s new statement on the matter does not raise the idea of a complete ban or moratorium on facial recognition, which some critics of the technology say is necessary. Instead, the Vatican simply seems to call for better rules to govern the tech.

“New forms of regulation must be encouraged to promote transparency and compliance with ethical principles,” the document reads, “especially for advanced technologies that have a higher risk of impacting human rights, such as facial recognition.”

The Catholic Church is actually no stranger to artificial intelligence. In recent years, much of its focus on the technology has been in consultation with expert researchers in the field and representatives of major technology companies. The Dominican Order has even supported a priest-led research organization called Optic since 2012, which, among other things, researches AI and its potential to marginalize people. The organization also says it provides private consultations to leaders in the tech industry.

Meanwhile, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life has hosted workshops on artificial intelligence. The effort extends further, as last year, two more pontifical academies — the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences — hosted a conference on the ethical questions raised by robotics and artificial intelligence. These conferences have been attended by the likes of DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis, Facebook computer scientist Yann LeCun, and even LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. The Vatican’s much-covered first hackathon in 2018 was also supported by companies such as Google, Salesforce, and Microsoft.

The list of Silicon Valley stars hanging out in Rome goes on. The Pope himself has personally met with Microsoft president Brad Smith, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Eric Schmidt. Earlier this month, the Pope met Smith to discuss how artificial intelligence could serve the “common good,” according to Reuters.

So it might not be surprising that the Vatican’s vision for artificial intelligence appears to mirror much of what tech giants are already saying: Regulate our new technology, but don’t ban it outright.

Keep in mind that, as Wired reported last year, tech companies have been actively trying to influence the rules that will govern this new technology. Some, such as Microsoft, are even creating AI principles of their own. There’s also the Partnership for AI, a corporate-funded nonprofit meant to study best practices for artificial intelligence that is supported by Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and IBM, among other companies.

The Rome Call is just another sign that the Vatican is paying close attention to emerging technology. And, for whatever it’s worth, tech companies seem eager to come along. While new faith-filled robots and AI-inspired gods stand to shape conversations about religion in the 21st century, there are also complicated conversations between age-old religious institutions and powerful tech platforms that it would be a mistake to ignore.

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