ROME – Vatican officials and major tech companies have expressed a common conviction that a heightened dependence on technology amid the coronavirus has opened the door to innovations in artificial intelligence aimed at solving the world’s most pressing issues.

Speaking during an online conference on AI ethics, John Kelly, executive vice president of IBM, said that while some might view the pandemic “as a setback,” he prefers to see it “as an opportunity to accelerate and implement” ethical solutions to problems such as poverty and food insecurity based on artificial intelligence.

Not only have work and education largely gone digital, but the pharmaceutical industry has also “accelerated,” Kelly said, pointing to how IBM has tried to use AI technology to ease the burdens people across the world face.

IBM, he said, used AI technology to process data and to pass information to both citizens and first responders, and they also assisted researchers by donating supercomputers to identify molecules capable of being used in potential vaccines. They also donated around 300,000 tablets to children in low-income households so they could participate in distance-learning.

“We’ve tried to ethically deploy AI intelligence during pandemic,” he said, praising the commitment of other actors, including the Vatican, that have advocated for ethical use of AI.

Kelly spoke during a virtual Sept. 24 event called, “Ethics of Artificial Intelligence.” Organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, it was a follow-up to a Feb. 28 conference in Rome on the same topic attended by representatives of several major tech companies, including Microsoft and IBM, who were also present during Thursday’s event.

During the February conference, the academy presented the “Rome Call for AI Ethics,” designed to promote an ethical vision of artificial intelligence. Microsoft and IBM were the first two signatories.

Among other things, the 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.”

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In Thursday’s digital conference, held via Zoom, speakers unanimously agreed that in the wake of the coronavirus, future developments in AI technology will be increasingly crucial in many fields, particularly food insecurity.

Dongyu Qu, Director General of the FAO, noted that within the next 50 years the global population is expected to increase by roughly 10 billion, meaning the demand for food will increase, while humanity’s carbon footprint must decrease.

This, he said, means new and sustainable forms of agriculture must be developed, given that agriculture currently accounts for roughly 39 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.

“The new technological frontier in AI can have a tremendous impact,” Qu said, but cautioned that “new ethical challenges” also arise, such as the balance between providing new equipment to farmers that would make their work more efficient, but could potentially take jobs away from agricultural workers.

Kelly identified three areas where AI could most be of use: To better produce food at the local level, to strengthen supply chains, and to predict when natural disasters might strike so that supply chains don’t get shut down, but can shift ahead of time, ensuring everyone still has access to food.

Pointing to the problem of food waste, Kelly said roughly $1 trillion in food is wasted each year. This is a problem AI can solve when “ethically used,” he said, adding that implementing other technologies such as blockchain (a secure online ledger) can help assure that buyers are getting what they pay for.

Brian Smith, president of Microsoft, said the February “Call for AI Ethics” was timely since it touched on issues that will be discussed for decades, and which the coronavirus has exacerbated.

Among those questions, he said, is not only what the ethical principles for the use of AI are, but also “what it means to be inclusive, to protect privacy and safety,” and to ensure that AI is used “to serve and that human beings stay in control of it.”

He praised the Pontifical Academy for Life’s decision to include sustainability in the call for AI ethics, saying it “broke new ground” because it goes to “to the heart of what we’re talking about” in terms of food and agriculture.

While there are certainly “threats” posed by AI, such as job losses, Smith said the technology can also “make us smarter” and can augment humanity’s abilities.

There is a need “to be optimistic about what we will see AI contribute,” he said, stressing the importance moving forward of ensuring advanced technologies are accessible, particularly the internet and broadband technology.

He also underlined the need to increase access to digital skills, because “we’re going to see in a few decades people who are engaged in agriculture needing to know more about how to use data and technology.”

Smith also urged NGO’s and non-profit organizations to make greater contributions, particularly at the local level.

“Digital technology has advanced more than what we thought in February,” Smith said, adding, “this year should be an opportunity to use what we’ve learned.”

Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, warned against increased poverty and inequality as a result of COVID-19, with an estimated 60 million more people lacking access to basic necessities.

In the pursuit of potential solutions, “AI must be at the service of human life, of the whole human family” he said, insisting that “life is more than the information contained in a strand of DNA.”

“Even the greatest intelligence, digital or the best learning system, has no power over human life,” he said, adding, “life is more than we can grasp, but also more than we could ever expect.”

“For this reason, it is increasingly clear that different fields of knowledge and fields must find places to share” and exchange ideas, he said, noting that the ethical questions regarding the use of AI “tell us each what I can and must do” without marginalizing people or falling into the “economization” of human life.

Paglia also stressed the importance of protecting biodiversity as agriculture changes, saying, “We have to feed everyone, but not everyone has to eat the same thing.”

Pointing to Pope Francis’s new encyclical on human fraternity to be released in October, Paglia told his fellow speakers, “Please, don’t forget the poor of our age!”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen