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Why Pope Francis thinks the Church should play a part in world leaders’ debate on AI


An image of Pope Francis wearing a stylish white puffer jacket went viral last year, prompting a flurry of comments about his choice of clothes and even questions about whether he had a stylist. But there was a problem: the image was a “deep fake” created using artificial intelligence.

This week, the pope is due to make an historic intervention in the debate around AI at the G7 summit in southern Italy’s Puglia region. On Friday, Francis will become the first pope to participate in the summit of leaders from the world’s most advanced economies when he takes part in a session dedicated to AI. US President Joe Biden, a Catholic who has a warm relationship with Francis, is among the leaders expected to be present at the gathering.

The 87-year-old pontiff is determined to use the soft power of his office to try to ensure that the development of AI serves humanity and does not turn into a 21st-century Frankenstein’s monster.

For the pope, who as a young man trained as a chemist, developments in science and technology are to be welcomed; he believes AI offers exciting new opportunities. But the pope also foresees some grave risks.

In a message released late last year, he warned that a “technological dictatorship” could emerge if sufficient regulation was not put in place, highlighting the threats posed by AI-controlled weapons systems and the dangers that technology could be misused for a surveillance society and interference in elections. AI, the pope believes, can make the world a better place only if it serves the “common good” and does not increase inequalities.

The pope and the Vatican have been pushing for an ethical framework to underpin the development and use of AI. Since 2020, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, a body advocating for Catholic moral teachings on bioethics, has been promoting “Rome Call for AI Ethics,” a document setting out six principles for AI ethics, among them transparency, inclusion, responsibility and impartiality.

The Vatican is seeking buy-in from big tech companies and governments. So far, the document has been signed by Microsoft (MSFT), IBM (IBM), and Cisco Systems (CSCO), along with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, Italy’s innovation ministry and numerous religious leaders.

At the G7 summit, the pope is expected to urge world leaders to work together on the regulation of AI, echoing his call at the end of last year for a “binding international treaty” to prevent harmful practices and encourage the best ones. European Union lawmakers have already passed a law regulating AI, while a bipartisan group of US senators have set out plans for AI regulation that could lead to federal legislation.

“The pope is not an engineer, but he is concerned about the social aspects and implications of AI,” Father Paolo Benanti, a Franciscan friar and professor who has been working with the Vatican on the issue of AI, told CNN. Benanti is also a member of a UN advisory body on AI. At the G7, he expects the pope to emphasize elements of his previous messages on the subject.

“The core approach of Francis is focused on what new technology means for our co-existence: which elements of AI are causing inequality for humanity, and topics such as the distribution of fake news in the public square. He takes a global outlook and sees that the global south does not have the same access to technology as other parts of the world.”

Benanti said Francis was sensitive to the “great challenges facing humanity,” noting that he had begun his papacy by highlighting the plight of migrants. He has also addressed the threat posed by climate change in a major papal document and is now focused on AI, Benanti added.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, told CNN that “only regulation at the international level can produce valid and appreciable results in stopping abuse, manipulation and instrumentalization” of new technology. The academy’s push for a more ethical AI, he added, seeks to ensure a “path of sustainable development for all humanity.”

Italy, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the G7, last year placed a temporary ban on ChatGPT, a chatbot and virtual assistant, over privacy concerns and has plans to penalize the misuse of AI. Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister, has said she believes the pope’s presence in Puglia “will give a decisive contribution to drawing up an ethical and cultural regulatory framework” for AI. She said it was crucial to harness the “best ethical and intellectual reflections” in this area, adding that the “Rome Call for AI Ethics” was helping create the idea of “algorethics” — ethics for algorithms.

Francis’ decision to become the first pope to participate in a G7 summit signals his desire to be where the “real debate actually takes place,” papal adviser Father Antonio Spadaro posted on X, formerly Twitter. While in Puglia, Francis will have the chance to talk directly with decision-makers, and his decision underlines the pope’s vision of a Church that engages with the world rather than retreating from it.

Father Philip Larrey, the author of a book on AI, “Artificial Humanity,” and former dean of the Philosophy Department at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, described Francis’ decision to attend as “quite surprising” but one Larrey believes will “influence the outcome” of the summit.

“AI and emerging technologies are on Pope Francis’ radar screen,” Larrey, now a professor of philsophy at Boston College, told CNN. “(He) wants to use the richness of the Catholic tradition in order to weigh in on the importance of reflecting on the ethical implications of AI. And his personal presence in (Puglia) testifies to the urgency of that message: he often refers to ‘person-centered AI’ to make his point.”

The “deep fake” image of the pope in the puffer jacket became a landmark moment for the development of AI and deep fakery, showcasing the power of new technology to manipulate images.

Francis addressed this when warning earlier this year about disinformation and the spread of images that “appear perfectly plausible but false.” He pointed out: “I too have been an object of this.”

It wasn’t just the puffer jacket image: the pope has repeatedly been the subject of deep fakery, with computer-generated images circulating of him skateboarding, riding a motorcycle and even blending in at the Burning Man festival in Nevada.

It’s clear that Francis sees AI as part of what he called the “epochal change” taking place at the beginning of the 21st century.

His decision to attend the G7 summit indicates he wants the Church to be at the heart of discussions about how this change unfolds, and to help ensure that new technology can benefit the whole of humanity.

Originally Appeared Here

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