ROME – Artificial intelligence is rapidly transforming human society and interactions, and the Vatican and Catholic clergy are taking note in an effort to prepare for the ethical debates of the future.

At a roundtable event in Rome last week, two priests engaged in the intersection between AI and ethics warned against a “technology arms race” and the risk that as we make machines more human, people may become increasingly like machines.

“It seems to me that more fundamentally, AI, robots, and virtual reality could potentially lead humans to treat each other like machines, and also to lose a sense of their own dignity and their role to change the world for the good,” said Dominican Father Ezra Sullivan, professor of moral theology at the Angelicum, in an email to Crux March 22.

“People could then see themselves no longer as meaningful agents, but rather as passive objects of manipulation by machines or elites with power,” he added, pointing out that this could lead to widespread mental health disorders and a “spiritual malaise.”

Sullivan attended a March 20 symposium titled “from Awe to Wisdom: Ethics in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” hosted by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. The event aimed to reinforce U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order driving federal resources to invest in the growing industry of Artificial Intelligence.

The symposium tried to tackle some of the ethical concerns that are becoming ever more prominent as this technology develops under very limited regulation. Over the past several years, the Vatican has taken a growing interest in artificial intelligence under Pope Francis’s leadership.

In a recent interview with the Italian news outlet Vatican Insider, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life said that Francis asked the think tank to take a deep dive into today’s emerging technologies – including AI.

The pope’s encouragement, the archbishop added, is aimed at “understanding the epochal transformations that are taking place on these new frontiers, to understand how to direct them toward the service of the human person, respecting and promoting his intrinsic dignity.”

For those who question what the Catholic Church has to offer in the field of science and technology, Sullivan stated that with its millennia-long experience in addressing the most difficult questions the Church has become “an expert in humanity,” capable of adapting this knowledge to the field of Artificial Intelligence.

“The Church is thereby able to speak about the deepest human concerns in light of the loftiest goals of the heart,” he said.

“On a practical level, with her convening power, the Church becomes a meeting place for people of good will—from every religion, ethnicity, and political agenda—to discuss these matters.”

What are the ethical challenges facing AI development today? The experts said this increasingly pervasive technology has found application in countless fields, often making people’s lives better and easier but sometimes taking over jobs and professions initially held by human beings.

There is little doubt, they warned, that development of AI and automated technologies will create a considerable number of unemployed people, many of whom will be unable to be retrained to apply for the many other jobs that AI will create.

There are other, more insidious traps that hide within AI, the experts said, which risk transforming this technology into a force for inequality.

During the U.S. Embassy conference, Paul Nelson, a science fellow who collaborates with the United States Agency for International Development’s Digital Finance team, discussed the use of AI in financial services. In this field, AI can be used to generate chat-boxes where an algorithm is created to respond to human queries on a specific subject and often simulate human interaction.

But in other financial services, for example loans but also other sectors that have witnessed a heavy introduction of AI technology, inherent bias within coding can lead to inequalities. To determine whether a person is eligible to receive a loan in cases where that person has never had a bank account or credit score, the machine algorithm may take into consideration factors such as the neighborhood they live in, their profession, age or marital status. At times, critics charge, these calculations have led to unfair targeting of ethnic minorities as unfit to qualify for a loan.

AI machines are not racist, but as Nelson put it, “an AI system itself is basically a representation of the human beings who created it.”

Artificial intelligence may reflect the inherent human biases, but sometimes it may also draw mysterious conclusions by itself. Essentially, some AI technology collect vast amounts of data and use an algorithm to determine the appropriate response. Yet in some cases the algorithms used are so complex, or the data so disparate, that human beings cannot understand the connections that led the machines to determine a response, including some which appear ethically dubious.

If you add to this that many AI machines are capable of learning and can therefore acquire ethically suspect approaches from external input, the situation becomes even more complex.

According to Franciscan Father Paolo Benanti, among the organizers of a recent conference hosted by the Pontifical Academy for Life on “Robo-Ethics” and a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, it’s essential to “give back the control of a possible bias to society.”

“An algorithm is very selfish,” Benanti said at the roundtable event, and humans must take the reins in order to avoid furthering inequality.

As the field of AI continues to grow, institutions, companies and individuals may see in it an opportunity for wealth and fame, Sullivan warned, unbound by ethical concerns.

“The technology arms race,” as the Dominican calls it, means that “in the end, profitability, recognition, and influence become the highest considerations.”

Benanti welcomed these challenges, stating that “we live in a wonderful moment” where we can influence and instruct the society and technologies of tomorrow. Yet even he concluded with words of warning.

“As machines become more human, we must ensure to not become machines,” he said.