Vatican official not concerned with 'super-intelligent robots'

Vatican official not concerned with ‘super-intelligent robots’

Vatican official not concerned with ‘super-intelligent robots’

Australian Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy, attends the presentation of the book, "Connected World," at the Vatican March 28. The book by Father Philip Larrey addresses advanced technology and the rise of artificial intelligence on society. (Credit: Paul Haring/CNS.)

Australian Cardinal George Pell, chosen by Pope Francis to be the Vatican's first Secretary for the Economy, said on Tuesday that inequality and progress are “inextricably linked,” but globalization “is not ‘anywhere near the threat that robots are’.”

ROME—A top Vatican official has warned that, even though new technologies can promote employment and new opportunities, they can also lead to tragedy, particularly among those who suffer the effects of modern technology and artificial intelligence due to lack of employment.

Quoting a Nobel Prize winner for Economics, Australian Cardinal George Pell said that inequality and progress are “inextricably linked,” but globalization “is not ‘anywhere near the threat that robots are’.”

In a recently published paper, Scotsman Angus Deaton, awarded the Nobel in 2015, together with his economist wife Anne Case, wrote that between 1999 and 2013, close to 500,000 white men with only a high-school education have committed suicide in the United States.

“Drugs and alcohol enhance the tragedy, but certainly the decline in social capital; for example, family breakdown, extra-nuptial births, widespread pornography, addictive computer games, and the decline in religious faith and practice,” Pell said on Tuesday, during a book presentation.

Connected World, from automated work to virtual wards: the future, by those who are shaping it was written by Father Philip Larrey, a philosophy professor at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University.

Through conversations with people such as Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, and Sir Martin Stuart Sorrell, CEO of WPP plc, the world’s largest advertising company, the author explores the long-term consequences that technology and artificial intelligence will have in society.

The book explores 15 different topics, from Cyber security to the future of design, social media, and nuclear instruments.

Pell, who acknowledged he’s no expert in the field, explored some of the concerns around robotics and artificial intelligence.

“Most Christians are not dooms-dayers, although that option is not outlawed,” Pell said, adding that because they believe that the creator God is good and reasonable, Christians are slow to believe the very worst, “despite the evil and suffering around us.”

For this reason, he said, he’s not concerned about “malign super-intelligent robots” escaping human control. Yet he is wary about what evil persons would do with deep-minded robots.

“We already have military drones, which are presently used more for good than for evil,” he said. “Hostile cyber-attacks are a feature of modern life.”

Despite the advances in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), he is dubious of the human ability for creating a robot which is self-conscious, capable of feeling, or distinguishing good from evil. And even though computers and robots are never evil in themselves, Pell said, “they can be programmed to perform actions which we rightly call evil.”

Appointed by Pope Francis as the Vatican’s first Prefect for the Secretariat for the Economy, Pell also said that robotics and AI bring greater efficiency, safety and productivity, which are real potential benefits that go hand in hand with all the uncertainty produced by these fields.

The changes coming, he said, are “unprecedented,” and as several experts have said, the period of change the world is headed for can be like the Cambrian Age, which took place some 500 million years ago.

Pell also said that even though a 2011 study by McKinsey showed that in France 2.4 jobs had been created for every one destroyed by the internet, education and learning capacity is required for these new positions, and access to these is not universal.

Talking about automation, meaning machines performing tasks currently done by humans, he said that majority opinion will have to consent to the pace and forms it takes.

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and the decision the United Kingdom made to leave the European Union (Brexit), he said, “have shown that a strong majority of elite opinion will not necessarily prevail with the majority of the voters.

“Progress in technology has always meant that some skills are superseded and that new skills will be needed,” Pell said. “But will there be more jobs created than destroyed? Where will those jobs be? Will there be workers available with the requisite skills?”

At an even more basic level, he argued, the world will be forced to consider “Whether work is desirable, whether most will want to work, or be reconciled and even happy to do no work like some European aristocrats.”

Citing Pope John Paul II on the dignity of work, and the idea that humanity’s best efforts will somehow pass into the “new heaven and the new earth,” Pell wondered if this idea was now theologically ill-conceived and, furthermore, part of a worldview which is now “doomed.”

“Would a democratic government ever be reconciled to a situation where an inactive majority receive a living allowance?” he asked, adding that it’s “a spectacular new option for a welfare society of unhappy dependents.”

As the free market faces new challenges with the rise of automation, “new paradigms will be needed” so that economies “are not trapped and damaged by their own successes, or by popular revolts and rejections.”

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