ROME – Child psychologist Richard Lerner has said that the coronavirus has opened up new opportunities for the tech world, including artificial intelligence, to meet the needs of the disadvantaged, insisting that the Catholic Church is uniquely positioned to offer ethical guidelines as things move forward.
“Think for a moment about African Americans, Latin Americans, and poor people in the United States. Their children are living in trauma all the time, in adversity, because of racism and poverty, and also because of health, educational and economic inequity,” Richard Lerner told Crux.
Professor of Human Development at Tufts University and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Lerner said the coronavirus has compounded the challenges that children facing poverty and adversity experience in two ways.
First, “the child’s ability to learn in a school context has been taken, and in addition, their family has been challenged because the poor and the poor people of color are the most likely to lose their jobs, and the parents will be under stress,” meaning that children in these families will also face additional stress, he said.
Noting that prolonged stress can take a toll on a child’s development, impeding their ability to focus, learn and develop basic life skills, Lerner said the one thing that helps – close personal relationships – is largely off the table due to the coronavirus and social distancing requirements.
The only option left, he said, is technology. Noting that most children even in impoverished countries have either a computer or smartphone, he said there is an urgent need “to begin creating tools that can help the parent help the kid get the sort of nurturing relationship that will free up the brain to help their skills on reading and writing, and learning how to be a successful functioning person.”
As a psychologist specialized in child development, Lerner said he and his colleagues have spent much of the coronavirus lockdown working to develop measures of how to help disadvantaged children get beyond stress and increase their chances at healthy development.
“What we’re doing is seeing how we can create tools for parents, for teachers, for remote learning, for mental health professionals, to look at what is needed to get that kid on a positive pathway to attaining the life skills they need and might have had a better shot of getting before the pandemic,” he said.
To do this, Lerner said he is partnering with numerous tech companies to develop programs aimed at lowering stress among children based on the measures he and his colleagues have been tracking, including some who use artificial intelligence.
“AI is stepping up, we are talking to people who know not just how to translate what we’re doing into tools, but how to scale them,” Lerner said, noting that the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative has invested “millions of dollars” in developing these projects, which have also received the support of several family foundations throughout the United States and, in selective cases, Europe and Asia.
Lerner said he is also on committees with UNICEF and USAID and is working with these entities “to get the right measures in the right countries so we can build these tools there, and we’re doing it all remotely and working with people who are experts in AI.”
It is essential to work with people who understand technology and how to scale it, including experts in AI, in order to give children the tools they need to succeed, he said, adding, “We especially need to do that for kids who have been beset by racism and poverty, which is still a huge challenge in the United States.”
However, Lerner also cautioned that while useful, technology is not omnipotent.
“Artificial intelligence is just that, artificial. It is not integrated in a holistic way in a live person,” he said. “Anything in a machine is put there by a human.”
“Artificial intelligence can help us in numerous ways, but it has to be done in the service of humans, and not the reverse, making humans in service of the machine. In that sense we need people who have a moral compass, who have ideas that embrace what it means to be human, human dignity and human life,” Lerner said.
Lerner is among the authors of the recent article, “Contributions from the Catholic Church to ethical reflections in the digital era,” which was drafted by members of the Pontifical Academy for Life and published in the current issue of Nature Machine Intelligence, which is the Nature Research journal that addresses a variety of topics related to machine learning, robotics and artificial intelligence.
Given the Catholic Church’s global nature and its networks with diverse experts in various fields, it is “in a unique position for moral leadership” when it comes to the ethical applications of technology.
“No entity other than the Vatican has that broad, universal platform…That the Vatican stepped up and took this platform is astonishing,” he said, noting that he was present in Rome for the February general assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which culminated in the signing of the “Rome Call for AI Ethics.” Microsoft and IBM were the first to two signatories of the document.
Lerner said he believes the “Rome Call for AI Ethics” can be “much more than a photo op,” largely because of “the vision and commitment of the pope and the leaders of the pontifical academy, but also because they really understand the essence of being human.”
“Being able to live with yourself and having this great scientific power that serves only for self-aggrandizement, is going to ultimately fail,” he said.
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