ROME – Speaking to executives from some of the world’s most important tech companies, Pope Francis said that technology needs “both theoretical and practical moral principles,” and that advances in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI) cannot lead to a new “form of barbarism,” where the common good is abandoned to the rule of law of the strongest.

Speaking to participants from every continent, and from countries including the United States and Russia, Francis also warned against the use of AI to “circulate tendentious opinions and false data that could poison public debates and even manipulate the opinions of millions of people, to the point of endangering the very institutions that guarantee peaceful civil coexistence.”

“If mankind’s so-called technological progress were to become an enemy of the common good, this would lead to an unfortunate regression to a form of barbarism dictated by the law of the strongest,” Francis said.

Francis’s words came as he was addressing the participants of a Vatican-sponsored meeting titled “The Common Good in the Digital Age.” The seminar explored the ethical dilemmas around technological development, focusing on three things that are close to the pontiff’s heart: The future of work, peacebuilding and warfare, and new horizons for the common good.

Participants included executives from Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook, Mozilla, LinkedIn and Western Digital. Also in attendance were Nobel laureates, government officials, internet entrepreneurs, and Catholic ethicists.

According to the head of the Vatican’s Council for Culture, Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the complexities of the ongoing scientific research in the field of digital culture led his office to join forces with the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, led by Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson.

As Ravasi noted when he introduced the group to the pope, the discussions went from digital systems to autonomous weaponry, from artificial intelligence to blockchain, from robotization to transhumanism.

The “guiding star” of their reflections, the cardinal told Francis, was the “value of the common good and the protection of the dignity of the human person.”

In his opening remarks, Turkson said the seminar wanted to testify to “the synodal face of the Church.” Synod, he said, means “walking together,” and the hope for the gathering was that by walking together, the participants could discover “some guidelines with which we can help technological advancement to be at the service of integral human development, at the service of the whole person, the person, of all people.”

The Sept. 26-28 conference is the latest attempt by the Vatican to stay ahead of the curve on technology and social issues, bringing together people from different backgrounds to have frank and open discussions, regardless of their faith or their positions on any given issue.

The conference addressed issues such as cyber espionage, online hate speech and misuse of private data, all of which are on the rise and so far, not being properly addressed by the IT industry.

Francis thanked the participants, noting that the “remarkable” technological developments of the modern age call for “open and concrete” discussions to address the increasingly significant presence of artificial intelligence in all areas of humanity.

The pope also said that there’s a “fundamental parallelism,” between the “indisputable benefit” humanity will be able to draw from technological advances and the ethical manner in which the new possibilities are employed.

“The key areas you are exploring will have an immediate and real impact on the lives of millions of people,” Francis said. “The conviction we share is that humanity faces unprecedented and completely new challenges. New problems require new solutions.”

He also urged them to have a “creative fidelity” to principles and traditions, thinking always of the common good: “The problems you have been called upon to analyze concern all humanity and require solutions that can be extended to all of humanity.”

As an example, he pointed to the robotics industry, which is often replacing men and women in the workplace: On the one hand, robots can perform tasks that are arduous and risky, but on the other hand, they could become “purely hyper-efficient” tools that deprive thousands of workers, putting their dignity at risk.

Francis also spoke about the use of artificial intelligence in debates on major social issues. This practice, he said, can make it possible to access reliable information and guarantee correct analyses; on the other hand, it can be used to circulate tendentious opinions and false data that poisons public debates and manipulates the opinion of millions, “to the point of endangering the very institutions that guarantee peaceful civil coexistence.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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