July 25, 2024
News Vatican

Pope to G7: AI is ‘neither objective nor neutral’

In an address to the G7 summit, Pope Francis discusses the threat and promise of artificial intelligence, the ‘techno-human condition’, human vs algorithmic decision-making, AI-written essays, and the necessity of political collaboration on technology.

By Joseph Tulloch

On Friday afternoon, Pope Francis addressed the G7 leaders’ summit in Puglia, Italy.

He is the first Pope to ever address the forum, which brings together the leaders of the US, UK, Italy, France, Canada, Germany, and Japan.

AI: Dangers and promises

The Pope dedicated his address to the G7 to the subject of artificial intelligence.

He began by saying that the birth of AI represents “a true cognitive-industrial revolution” which will lead to “complex epochal transformations”.

These transformations, the Pope said, have the potential to be both positive  – for example, the  “democratization of access to knowledge”, the “exponential advancement of scientific research”, and a reduction in “demanding and arduous work” – and negative – for instance, “greater injustice between advanced and developing nations or between dominant and oppressed social classes.”

The ’techno-human condition’

Noting that AI is “above all a tool”, the Pope spoke of what he called the “techno-human condition”.

He explained that he was referring to the fact that humans’ relationship with the environment has always been mediated by the tools that they have produced.

Some, the Pope said, see this as a weakness, or a deficiency; however, he argued, it is in fact something positive. It stems, he said, from the fact that we are beings “inclined to what lies outside of us”, beings “radically open to the beyond.”

This openness, Pope Francis said, is both the root of our “techno-human condition” and the root of our openness to others and to God, as well as the root of our artistic and intellectual creativity.

Decision-making: humans v machines

The Pope then moved on to the subject of decision-making.

He said that AI is capable of making “algorithmic choices” – that is, “technical” choices “among several possibilities based either on well-defined criteria or on statistical inferences”.

Human beings, however, “not only choose, but in their hearts are capable of deciding.”

This is because, the Pope explained, they are capable of wisdom, of what the Ancient Greeks called phronesis (a type of intelligence concerned with practical action), and of listening to Sacred Scripture.

It is thus very important, the Pope stressed, that important decisions must “always be left to the human person.”

As an example of this principle, the Pope pointed to the development of lethal autonomous weapons – which can take human life with no human input – and said that they must ultimately be banned.

Algorithms ‘neither objective nor neutral’

The Pope also stressed that the algorithms used by artificial intelligence to arrive at choices are “neither objective nor neutral.”

He pointed to the algorithms designed to help judges in deciding whether to grant home-confinement to prison inmates. These programmes, he said, make a choice based on data such as the type of offence, behaviour in prison, psychological assessment, and the prisoner’s ethnic origin, educational attainment, and credit rating.

However, the Pope stressed, this is reductive: “human beings are always developing, and are capable of surprising us by their actions.  This is something that a machine cannot take into account.”

A further problem, the Pope emphasised, is that algorithms “can only examine realities formalised in numerical terms:”

AI-generated essays

The Pope then turned to consider the fact that many students are increasingly relying on AI to help them with their studies, and in particular, with writing essays.

It is easy to forget, the Pope said, that “strictly speaking, so-called generative artificial intelligence is not really ‘generative’” – it does not “develop new analyses or concepts” but rather “repeats those that it finds, giving them an appealing form.”

This, the Pope said, risks “undermining the educational process itself”.

Education, he emphasised, should offer the chance for “authentic reflection”, but instead “runs the risk of being reduced to a repetition of notions, which will increasingly be evaluated as unobjectionable, simply because of their constant repetition.”

Towards an “algor-ethics”

Bringing his speech to a close, the Pope emphasised that AI is always shaped by “the worldview of those who invented and developed it.”

A particular concern in this regard, he said, is that today it is “increasingly difficult to find agreement on the major issues concerning social life”  – there is less and less consensus, that is, regarding the philosophy that should be shaping artificial intelligence.

What is necessary, therefore, the Pope said, is the development of an “algor-ethics”, a series of “global and pluralistic” principles which are “capable of finding support from cultures, religions, international organizations and major corporations.”

“If we struggle to define a single set of global values,” the Pope said, we can at least “find shared principles with which to address and resolve dilemmas or conflicts regarding how to live.”

A necessary politics

Faced with this challenge, the Pope said, “political action is urgently needed.”

“Only a healthy politics, involving the most diverse sectors and skills”, the Pope stressed, is capable of dealing with the challenges and promises of artificial intelligence.

The goal, Pope Francis concluded, is not “stifling human creativity and its ideals of progress” but rather “directing that energy along new channels.”

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