Ethics of robotics and AI: The Church is diving in

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14 young researchers helping the Pontifical Academy to consider Catholic thought on rapidly developing technologies.

The Holy See needs to “identify the specifics of Catholic thought” on the issues of “robo-ethics” and artificial intelligence at two upcoming plenary assemblies of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said Laura Palazzani, lecturer in Biolaw and Philosophy of Law at the University Maria Santissima Assunta (LUMSA) and member of the Academy, at a press conference in the Vatican this week.

“The field of robotics has made extraordinary progress,” said Palazzani. “Robots that were mechanical and static, passive, repetitive and executive objects, are now becoming ‘autonomous’ entities, able to move and interact with the environment, with the capacity to learn and adapt to the environment, of perception, analysis, reasoning, decision, and expression.”

This rapid development in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence “raises complex ethical questions that require interdisciplinary reflection,” she pointed out, stating that there is a need for reflection on an international level “in view of the regulation and ‘governance’ of the new technologies.”

From this perspective, she explained, the Holy See is aiming to “identify the specifics of Catholic thought” in this debate, paying “particular attention to the concept of the ‘electronic’ person and to the value and limits of the autonomy and responsibility of man in the age of the artificialization of the body and of intelligence.”

It is for this purpose that the Pontifical Academy for Life will hold its next general assembly on the topic of “Roboethics: Humans, machines and health” from February 25 to 27 at the Vatican.

Don’t leave the decisions to an unprepared ruling class

Along with robotics, the question of artificial intelligence (AI) raises just as many questions, said Fr. Paolo Benanti, T.O.R., a lecturer in moral theology and ethics of technology at the Pontifical Gregorian University and academician of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

AI and related technologies are pervasive, “inserting themselves in every area of our existence,” he said. At the same time, “the presentation of the successes obtained by these machines has always been conducted according to a competitive model compared to man,” he added.

This has created “extremely complex challenges” for our society, he explained, especially on an ethical level. “The greatest danger,” he warns, “does not come from AI in itself, but from not knowing these technologies and leaving decisions on their use to a ruling class that is not fully prepared to manage the issue.”

That’s why AI will be at the center of the assembly of the Academy in February 2020, he said. And since these are particularly “forward-looking” issues, 14 young researchers under the age of 35 will be actively involved in the debates.

Entering thus “into the territories of technology” to “explore them with boldness, creativity, and careful discernment,” in the words of H.E. Msgr. Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy of Life, the dicastery is responding to the exhortation of Pope Francis expressed in the letter published on January 15 on the occasion the 25th anniversary of its founding.

It is therefore the task of its members to engage “in a serious work of interpretation to understand how the new findings of science and technology affect our humanity.”

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