Tech heads join Vatican in ‘clarion call for a new generation of ethics’

Tech heads join Vatican in ‘clarion call for a new generation of ethics’

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As the digital age enters a new phase of technological advancement with the ushering in of an era of artificial intelligence, top representatives of major tech giants and the Vatican have joined voices in calling for a clear system of ethics to guide developments as they happen.

ROME – As the digital age enters a new phase of technological advancement with the ushering in of an era of artificial intelligence, top representatives of major tech giants and the Vatican have joined voices in calling for a clear system of ethics to guide developments as they happen.

Key principles of these ethics unanimously accepted by all parties is that AI developments must not only be focused on the good of humanity and respect for human rights, but they must also be inclusive of individuals and countries at every level of the development, as well as respectful of the environment.

“Artificial intelligence is going to change the world, and before we go too far forward with it, we need to think hard about the kind of impact we want to have,” Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, said the at the close of a conference organized by the Vatican’s Academy for Life, adding that “there are few places better to have this discussion here in Rome.”

Smith spoke at the Feb. 28 presentation of the academy’s “Rome Call for AI Ethics.” The document, which Smith called a “clarion call for a new generation of ethics,” is designed to promote an ethical vision of artificial intelligence. Microsoft and IBM were the first to two signatories.

Put forward after the close of the academy’s conference titled “The ‘good’ algorithm? Artificial Intelligence,” the call to ethics document insists that new technologies “must be researched and produced in accordance with criteria that ensure it truly serves the entire human family,” especially the most vulnerable.

Focused on ethics and human rights, the document stressed that, “Now more than ever, we must guarantee an outlook in which AI is developed with a focus not on technology, but rather for the good of humanity and of the environment, of our common and shared home and of its human inhabitants, who are inextricably connected.”

Systems must be conceived, designed and implemented to serve and protect humanity regardless of race or social status, the document said, insisting that as AI technology develops, it must meet three essential requirements: To be inclusive of everyone; to promote the good of each individual and of humanity as a whole; and to be aimed at protecting the planet.

The document also stressed the necessity of an interdisciplinary education in AI technologies, not only for the young, but with special attention to the elderly and disabled.

In prepared remarks sent to conference participants, Pope Francis, who was scheduled to address the gathering in person but cancelled due to a “slight illness,” stressed the importance of the Catholic Church having a voice in the debate.

RELATED: Humanity, ethics must be at center of AI technology, pope says

“We could say that the digital galaxy, and specifically artificial intelligence, is at the very heart of the epochal change we are experiencing…and is thus altering the way we think and act,” he said.

Warning against potential downsides to the technology, Francis said increasing standardization in new technologies can make it different to appreciate differences and cautioned that inequalities and threats to personal freedom can arise when data is collected and used for commercial or political ends without a person’s knowledge.

“The ethical problems that emerge from the ways that these new devices can regulate the birth and destiny of individuals calls for a renewed commitment to preserve the human quality of our shared history,” the pope said, adding that there are no “ready-made ideas” to solve the issues that might arise as AI technologies develop.

However, as believers, “our task is rather one of walking alongside others, listening attentively and seeking to link experience and reflection,” he said, insisting that the principles of the Church’s social teaching must be at the heart of the discussion.

In his speech, Smith called the Catholic Church “a voice for humanity” in the buzz over AI technologies, saying “the world needs the Catholic Church to be a voice for humanity, to be a voice that will welcome as it is everyone else to this round table and this big conversation.”

Referring to the “Rome Call” document on ethics, which he signed at the end of Friday’s morning panel, Smith said it is an important point of reference because “it starts with something of fundamental importance: People.”

“We are endowed with reason and conscience. The future of humanity requires that both of these come together,” he said, adding that humanity “must exercise our reason and conscience to … safeguard the rights and wellbeing of individuals.”

John Kelly III, Executive Vice President of IBM, outlined the different stages of technological development, noting that there have been three key eras of advancement, the first being tabulation, then programming and now artificial intelligence.

As the global community wades deeper into the latter, Kelly, who is Catholic, said it is important to remember that while AI machines are capable of learning without the need for specific instruction, they still take their cues from human beings.

AI machines “don’t have a consciousness. They are simply a reflection of us as humans,” he said, adding that when an AI machine is built, “it’s dumb,” only learning “by what we teach it.”

“If we build it, wouldn’t we expect it to absorb out own biases and hypothesis? It’s like looking in a mirror and seeing ourselves in these machines,” he said, stressing the need to make ethically sound choices in developing these technologies, using them to improve humanity in every field, whether it be healthcare, farming or assisting those with disabilities.

To this end, Kelly announced that IBM has partnered with the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesu children’s hospital, which will begin using IBM’s AI machine Watson to collect data and research child brain cancer and rare diseases in children.

“We’re not going to play games anymore, this is no longer man vs machine,” he said, adding that IBM’s goal is to explore how best to use AI machines “to do things that matter, and always make better decisions for the betterment of humanity.”

He also insisted on the need to share new AI technologies with developing nations, saying “we cannot allow it to go only to the haves and produce another group of have-nots.”

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, praised the commitment of tech leaders like Smith and Kelly to developing an ethical approach to AI, as well as political leaders such as the President of the European Parliament David Sassoli, who was also present and insisted that “we cannot be late” to the debate as AI developments prompt new and challenging questions.

Similarly, Dongyu Qu, Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said AI technology must be “transparent, efficient, socially ethical and responsible. If this happens, he said, it can be a useful tool and a source of hope for many.

In his comments, Paglia cautioned that the “instrumentalization” of AI can produce negative consequences, including vast inequalities and forms of control and exploitation.

Technology can create, but it can also destroy, he said, challenging attendees to avoid “man becoming techno-lized, rather than technology becoming humanized.”

Calling for education, research, production and an equal distribution of AI technologies, Paglia stressed that ensuring these are put to an ethical use must be a collective effort.

“(We) cannot do it alone,” he said, and stressed the need for dialogue and collaboration with all parties, from leaders of the world’s religions, to major tech companies to political actors.

“We intend to develop humanism in the digital era,” the archbishop said, insisting that the “Rome Call for AI Ethics” document is “not a point of arrival, but departure.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen


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