In February, the Pontifical Academy for Life helped to host a conference on the ethics of AI, at the end of which a statement was issued, the Rome Call for AI Ethics. Following that, a team from leading universities, along with the president and officials of the Pontifical Academy for Life, have penned an article titled “Contributions from the Catholic Church to ethical reflections in the digital era”. It appears in the current issue of Nature Machine Intelligence, a journal dedicated to research in areas such as machine learning, robotics and artificial intelligence.
Finding a way to make the opportunities, challenges, and potentially cataclysmic pitfalls of research into intelligent robots sound dull is an achievement. Nevertheless, the conference, the statement, and the paper really do represent a significant achievement in dialogue across disciplines.
In addition to the academy’s president, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the statement’s signatories included an array of A-listers: Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith; IBM executive VP John Kelly III; Director General Dongyu Qu of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Administration; and, Italy’s Minister for Technological Innovation and Digitalisation, Paola Pisano.
In other words, people involved in applied science and on the business side of things were willing to put their signatures on the statement: even with due regard for paper guarantees, the development is not insignificant.
A press release from the academy explained that the article highlights “how Christian anthropology fosters a future-oriented ethics open to and responsible for development,” and works from a “fundamentally confident” stance toward science and technology that welcomes innovation.
It further explained that the authors were careful to distinguish between artificial intelligence, machine intelligence and machine behaviour. These distinctions were clarified, the press release said, “by underlining how the dialogue already started between technologists and, for example, researchers in social sciences should be extended to also encompass philosophical and theological reflection, with expected benefits for all.”
It is not clear how that dialogue should help make those necessary distinctions. Any such dialogue, one may reasonably assume, ought to be founded and predicated on such distinctions.
Theologians and philosophers are certainly suited to the work of fine distinctions. They are also, more importantly, apt to provide a clear articulation of the ethical principles at stake. As the article puts it, “Human experience, including intelligence, cannot be reduced into categories fully accessible by machines.”
It also insisted that the clarity and sturdiness of the discussion’s broad frame will require “leveraging Christian-anthropological reflection”.
The tone of the conference was optimistic, that of the statement cheerful, and the article was perhaps deceptively upbeat.
One wonders whether the whole effort was not an attempt to follow St Ignatius’s advice: go in through your adversary’s door, to bring him out through your own. At least, it was an attempt – measurably successful – to show leaders in AI and machine research and development that the Church is willing to play ball.
How much ball we ought to be playing, and under what ground rules, are largely to be worked out. Meanwhile, “The Pontifical Academy for Life is proactively participating,” the article reported, “in this social and historical context that is undergoing a profound transformation.”
In any case, one hopes those involved in the dialogue are keeping up with the Terminator franchise, lest James Cameron’s apocalyptic fantasy comes to resemble a documentary.