ROME — Well known for his love for the poor, Pope Francis on Wednesday appealed to business and political officials gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos to ensure that what experts call a looming “fourth industrial revolution” doesn’t replace people with “soulless” machines.
According to the pontiff, world leaders face the challenge of ensuring that scientific and technological innovations do not lead to “the transformation of our planet into an empty garden for the enjoyment of a chosen few.”
The World Economic Forum in Davos, an ultra-chic village in the Swiss Alps, each year hosts 2,500 participants for an invitation-only Jan. 20-23 event bringing together world leaders, business executives, a sprinkling of Nobel laureates, and a handful of faces from the entertainment industry.
This year’s guest list includes US Vice President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
Francis’ message was presented to the gathering by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
“Do not be afraid to open your minds and hearts to the poor,” the message penned by Francis and dated Dec. 30 said. “In this way, you will give free rein to your economic and technical talents, and discover the happiness of a full life, which consumerism of itself cannot provide.”
Francis’ warnings regarding the dangers of technological innovation reflect the theme of this year’s meeting, “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
The theory is that a new economic revolution is coming, following those based on the introduction of steam power, electricity, and electronics. It’s defined by the Davos summit as “a new era that builds and extends the impact of digitization in new and unanticipated ways,” in which technology becomes embedded within societies and even the human body.
The pope’s appeal for leaders of the business world to “not forget the poor!” and make them their primary concern builds on similar warnings from other quarters.
On the eve of the meeting, Alex Webber, chairman of the Swiss UBS bank, said it’s up to policymakers to tackle the rise in inequality that will be caused by more automation. He also warned that the gap won’t grow only between developed and developing countries, but also within nations.
On Tuesday, the bank released a report saying that the ongoing industrial revolution will have less of an impact on developed economies, such as Switzerland, Singapore, and the United Kingdom.
The report added, however, that the spread of artificial intelligence and the use of robots in various industries will have a larger impact in emerging markets, such as Latin America and India, where cheap labor is a competitive advantage.
In his message, Francis called for the cry of the poor to “become our own, and together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme and mask our hypocrisy and egoism!”
The pope said that leaders shouldn’t be deadened by a culture of prosperity, incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of those in need.
“Weeping for other people’s pain does not only mean sharing in their sufferings,” Francis wrote, “but also and above all realizing that our own actions are a cause of injustice and inequality.”
The papal speech comes amidst a highly business-oriented week at the Vatican.
On Thursday, Francis met Jean Todt, president of the International Automobile Federation. The following day, he had a private audience with Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, and on Monday, he received the president of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Legarde.
Legarde was in Rome to participate in a summit organized by the Global Foundation, during which the Consumer Goods Forum, representing 400 of the world’s largest supermarket and retail companies, announced their commitment to eradicate forced labor from their supply chains. Australian Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s secretary for the economy, was the keynote speaker.
In his address to the Davos meeting, Francis also underlined the importance of protecting the environment, a concern that has become one of the cornerstones of his papacy. He called for the World Economic Forum “to become a platform for the defense and protection of creation and for the achievement of a progress which is healthier, more human, more social, [and] more integral.”
“Those who have the means to enjoy a decent life, rather than being concerned with privileges, must seek to help those poorer than themselves to attain dignified living conditions, particularly through the development of their human, cultural, economic and social potential,” he wrote.