The Vatican’s interest in artificial intelligence isn’t new, but pay attention to the tech companies that are joining along.

The Vatican’s interest in artificial intelligence isn’t new, but pay attention to the tech companies that are joining along.

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 popes passion projects and greatest worries.
The Vaticans interest in the technology is hardly new, and several of its pontifical academies essentially research societies under the Popes 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 algorithms initial design. But notably, none of the outlined principles are particularly new ideas. The popes 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 administrations guidance for the federal regulation of artificial intelligence (released in January).
From the Rome Call for AI Ethics

  1. Transparency: in principle, AI systems must be explainable;
  2. Inclusion: the needs of all human beings must be taken into consideration so that everyone can benefit and all individuals can be offered the best possible conditions to express themselves and develop;
  3. Responsibility: those who design and deploy the use of AI must proceed with responsibility and transparency;
  4. Impartiality: do not create or act according to bias, thus safeguarding fairness and human dignity;
  5. Reliability: AI systems must be able to work reliably; [and]
  6. Security and privacy: AI systems must work securely and respect the privacy of users.

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 were 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 theyre built, and the data on which theyre 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 Vaticans new statement on the matter does not raise the idea of a complete ban or moratorium on facial recognition, which some critics of the technologysay 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 Vaticans 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 Vaticans 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 Googles 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 Vaticans vision for artificial intelligence appears to mirror much of what tech giants are already saying: Regulate our new technology, but dont 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. Theres 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 its 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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