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Vatican’s document on AI keeps attracting support

Man interacting with AI

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John Burger - published on 05/02/24

Now four years old, the Rome Call for an Ethics of Artificial Intelligence warns of dangers to how people live and think.

The Archbishop of Canterbury on Tuesday became the latest to sign a Vatican-sponsored document calling for an ethical approach to artificial intelligence (AI). Archbishop Justin Welby’s signing of the Rome Call for an Ethics of Artificial Intelligence on April 30 came less than a week after the Californian technology giant Cisco Systems signed on.

In affixing his name to the document, Archbishop Welby stressed the importance of protecting the “dignity of every human being” and not “the profit” that the development of AI could generate.

The Rome Call was developed by the Pontifical Academy for Life and received its first signatures in February 2020. Pope Francis has publicly supported the initiative.

It is guided by the renAIssance Foundation, a non-profit founded in 2021 with the objective of supporting the anthropological and ethical reflection of new technologies on human life promoted by the Pontifical Academy for Life. 

The document on artificial intelligence advocates for the development of transparent, inclusive, socially beneficial, and responsible AI technologies. A core goal is to ensure that AI puts humanity and the natural world in which it lives at the center, not technology with man subservient to AI.

“The idea behind it is to promote a sense of shared responsibility among international organizations, governments, institutions and technology companies in an effort to create a future in which digital innovation and technological progress grant man his centrality,” the document’s introduction says.

AI offers enormous potential, it says. With it, many tasks will be able to be carried out more efficiently and effectively.

But AI’s potential for transforming modern life carries the danger of affecting “the way in which we perceive reality and human nature itself, so much so that they can influence our mental and interpersonal habits.”

Says the document, “It is time to begin preparing for a more technological future in which machines will have a more important role in the lives of human beings, but also a future in which it is clear that technological progress affirms the brilliance of the human race and remains dependent on its ethical integrity.”

Three requirements, six principles

The Rome Call says that in order for technological advancement to align with true progress for the human race and respect for the planet, it must meet three requirements. 

“It must include every human being, discriminating against no one,” the document says. “It must have the good of humankind and the good of every human being at its heart; finally, it must be mindful of the complex reality of our ecosystem and be characterized by the way in which it cares for and protects the planet (our “common and shared home”) with a highly sustainable approach, which also includes the use of artificial intelligence in ensuring sustainable food systems in the future. Furthermore, each person must be aware when he or she is interacting with a machine.”

“AI-based technology must never be used to exploit people in any way, especially those who are most vulnerable,” it continues. “Instead, it must be used to help people develop their abilities (empowerment/enablement) and to support the planet.”

The Rome Call envisions AI’s development and use being guided by “regulations and principles that protect people – particularly the weak and the underprivileged – and natural environments.” Algorithms used in AI applications must be understandable, and their purpose and objectives be apparent to all. Technologies that have a higher risk of impacting human rights, such as facial recognition, need especially to be regulated.

But also, ethical considerations should be part of the planning of new algorithms from the very beginning, the document says. The ethics should include six principles:

  • Transparency: “In principle, AI systems must be explainable.”
  • Inclusion: “All human beings must be taken into consideration.”
  • Responsibility: “Those who design and deploy the use of AI must proceed with responsibility and transparency.”
  • Impartiality: “Do not create or act according to bias, thus safeguarding fairness and human dignity.”
  • Reliability: “AI systems must be able to work reliably.”
  • Securityand privacy: “AI systems must work securely and respect the privacy of users.”

Tech companies

The first entities who signed the Rome Call, in addition to Archbishop Vicenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy of Life, were Microsoft and IBM, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the Italian Ministry of Innovation.

Microsoft ranked No. 14 in the 2022 Fortune 500 rankings of the largest United States corporations by total revenue. It was the world’s largest software maker by revenue in 2022 according to Forbes Global 2000. It is considered one of the Big Five American information technology companies, alongside Alphabet (parent company of Google), Amazon, Apple, and Meta (parent company of Facebook).

While several of the signatories are companies founded in the past few decades, IBM traces its history to the 19th century. It has been involved in technological advances ranging from punch-card tabulating systems, mainframe computers, the PC, software and supercomputers. It is one of the world’s largest employers.

Cisco Systems signed on this past week. Founded in 1984 and headquartered in San Jose, California, the company develops, manufactures, and sells networking hardware, software, telecommunications equipment and other high-technology services and products. Cisco specializes in specific tech markets, such as the Internet of things (IoT), domain security, videoconferencing, and energy management.

The document has also been signed by leaders in the three Abrahamic religions, various universities and smaller tech companies. 

Archbishop Welby, himself a former executive in the oil industry, commented this week, “While it is impossible to predict the future, we know that science and technology will continue to evolve rapidly and that we must prepare for it. The way we understand AI depends largely on the way we understand the nature of human beings.” 

Artificial IntelligenceEthicsTechnologyVatican
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