Pope Francis: Artificial intelligence ought to serve our best human potential and our highest aspirations, not compete with them
In his upcoming World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis lays out a manifesto for socially responsible and beneficial artificial intelligence
The Vatican has just released the text of Pope Francis’ News Year’s Day World Day of Peace Message for 2024, and perhaps not surprisingly, it focuses on AI.
This is very much a manifesto for socially responsible and beneficial AI that draws directly on what it means to be human in a technologically advanced world. It’s also one of the most thoughtful pieces on human-centric AI I’ve read in a while.
I’d encourage you to read the message in full — it’s not long at a little over 3,000 words (the complete text is available here).
I find it so helpful that I’d reproduce it in its entirety if I could. Sadly I can’t. But in lieu of the entire piece, here are a few of the highlights that stood out to me:
On the intertwining of technology and society
Many of the current discussions around AI are based on the idea of technologies being separate from how they are used — the “people kill people, not technologies” argument. Yet this is a fallacy that Pope Francis addresses head-on:
We need to remember that scientific research and technological innovations are not disembodied and “neutral”, but subject to cultural influences … [the products of human activities] always have an ethical dimension, closely linked to decisions made by those who design their experimentation and direct their production towards particular objectives. This is also the case with forms of artificial intelligence
This complex intertwining of human nature and aspirations — and what we imagine and invent — is critical to better-understanding how the impacts of emerging technologies play out.
As Pope Francis continues:
[Artificial intelligence systems] should always be regarded as “socio-technical systems”. For the impact of any artificial intelligence device – regardless of its underlying technology – depends not only on its technical design, but also on the aims and interests of its owners and developers, and on the situations in which it will be employed.
On what AI is
I was very pleased to see Pope Francis tackle the definition of AI (far too many people speak with authority on what AI might do without thinking about what it actually is) — and recognize that this is both poorly defined and multifaceted:
There is no single definition of artificial intelligence in the world of science and technology. The term itself, which by now has entered into everyday parlance, embraces a variety of sciences, theories and techniques aimed at making machines reproduce or imitate in their functioning the cognitive abilities of human beings.
… Artificial intelligence … ought to be understood as a galaxy of different realities.
I tend to go beyond the limitations of reproducing human abilities in how I describe AI, but the framing above is nevertheless a useful one.
On Beneficial AI
Pope Francis’ message is one of hope about AI. In a number of places he alludes to the tremendous promise of the technology, and the responsibility of humanity to use our intelligence to push forward the bounds of science and technology. And yet he also makes it clear that this hope is predicated on us developing AI responsibly and humanely.
As he writes:
We cannot presume a priori that [AI’s] development will make a beneficial contribution to the future of humanity and to peace among peoples. That positive outcome will only be achieved if we show ourselves capable of acting responsibly and respect such fundamental human values as “inclusion, transparency, security, equity, privacy and reliability”.
On responsibility for developing beneficial AI
I frequently come across the sentiment that good intentions will lead to beneficial AI, and that if tech leaders and innovators set out to “do good” all will be well with the world.
Of course, this is sheer fantasy — but it’s a fantasy that a surprising number of people seem to have bought in to. So it was good to see Pope Francis highlight the need to counter this with more formal oversight:
Nor is it sufficient simply to presume a commitment on the part of those who design algorithms and digital technologies to act ethically and responsibly. There is a need to strengthen or, if necessary, to establish bodies charged with examining the ethical issues arising in this field and protecting the rights of those who employ forms of artificial intelligence or are affected by them.
In his message, Pope Francis is also clear that, from his perspective, human rights should be at the heart of AI development:
The inherent dignity of each human being and the fraternity that binds us together as members of the one human family must undergird the development of new technologies and serve as indisputable criteria for evaluating them before they are employed, so that digital progress can occur with due respect for justice and contribute to the cause of peace.
And by extension, he invokes the need for many different perspectives and voices at the table as we work together to develop beneficial AI:
Artificial intelligence will become increasingly important. The challenges it poses are technical, but also anthropological, educational, social and political. It promises, for instance, liberation from drudgery, more efficient manufacturing, easier transport and more ready markets, as well as a revolution in processes of accumulating, organizing and confirming data. We need to be aware of the rapid transformations now taking place and to manage them in ways that safeguard fundamental human rights and respect the institutions and laws that promote integral human development. Artificial intelligence ought to serve our best human potential and our highest aspirations, not compete with them.
On human uniqueness
There are plenty of people speculating that we’re on a pathway to humans becoming redundant as AI transcends our abilities. I found the following passage a beautiful antidote to this:
Our world is too vast, varied and complex ever to be fully known and categorized. The human mind can never exhaust its richness, even with the aid of the most advanced algorithms. Such algorithms do not offer guaranteed predictions of the future, but only statistical approximations. Not everything can be predicted, not everything can be calculated; in the end, “realities are greater than ideas”. No matter how prodigious our calculating power may be, there will always be an inaccessible residue that evades any attempt at quantification.
Pope Francis’ later adds:
Human beings are, by definition, mortal; by proposing to overcome every limit through technology, in an obsessive desire to control everything, we risk losing control over ourselves; in the quest for an absolute freedom, we risk falling into the spiral of a “technological dictatorship”.
I’m intrigued by this invocation or mortality and the risk of “technological dictatorship”. I suspect some will disagree that this is, indeed, a risk. But when approached from the question of what makes us human — what defines us — and understanding what’s worth protecting lest we discard it without realizing what we’re losing, these ideas resonate deeply with me and my own work.
This focus on what makes us special as humans is further captured as Pope Francis tackles the tyranny of algorithms. Here, it’s worth reading his message in full, but just extracting one small section:
Fundamental respect for human dignity demands that we refuse to allow the uniqueness of the person to be identified with a set of data. Algorithms must not be allowed to determine how we understand human rights, to set aside the essential human values of compassion, mercy and forgiveness, or to eliminate the possibility of an individual changing and leaving his or her past behind.
On AI and jobs
Pope Francis is ambivalent on whether AI will ultimately be good or bad for jobs. Rather, he once again centers the conversation on what it means to be human, and how we need to ensure AI doesn’t inadvertently rob us of this:
Jobs that were once the sole domain of human labour are rapidly being taken over by industrial applications of artificial intelligence. Here too, there is the substantial risk of disproportionate benefit for the few at the price of the impoverishment of many. Respect for the dignity of labourers and the importance of employment for the economic well-being of individuals, families, and societies, for job security and just wages, ought to be a high priority for the international community as these forms of technology penetrate more deeply into our workplaces.
On Lethal Autonomous Weapons
Pope Francis’ message has quite a lot to say about weapons and war. Here, it’s worth highlighting his comments on lethal autonomous weapons:
Research on emerging technologies in the area of so-called Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems, including the weaponization of artificial intelligence, is a cause for grave ethical concern. Autonomous weapon systems can never be morally responsible subjects. The unique human capacity for moral judgment and ethical decision-making is more than a complex collection of algorithms, and that capacity cannot be reduced to programming a machine, which as “intelligent” as it may be, remains a machine. For this reason, it is imperative to ensure adequate, meaningful and consistent human oversight of weapon systems.
On AI and human development
Despite a strong emphasis on risk and responsibility, Pope Francis’ message is ultimately optimistic about AI — as long as its developed with human dignity and flourishing at its core.
The passage below captures this well:
[I]f artificial intelligence were used to promote integral human development, it could introduce important innovations in agriculture, education and culture, an improved level of life for entire nations and peoples, and the growth of human fraternity and social friendship.
On the need for cross-disciplinary dialogue
The passage below is really centered on ethics — but I was so pleased to see the emphasis on cross-disciplinary dialogue (something I have been calling for for some time now) that I thought the heading above appropriate:
An authentically humane outlook and the desire for a better future for our world surely indicates the need for a cross-disciplinary dialogue aimed at an ethical development of algorithms – an algor-ethics – in which values will shape the directions taken by new technologies. Ethical considerations should also be taken into account from the very beginning of research, and continue through the phases of experimentation, design, production, distribution and marketing. This is the approach of ethics by design, and it is one in which educational institutions and decision-makers have an essential role to play.
On AI and Education
I’ve spent much of this past year thinking and talking about the intersection between AI and education — and the passage below from Pope Francis’ message especially resonated with me:
Education in the use of forms of artificial intelligence should aim above all at promoting critical thinking. Users of all ages, but especially the young, need to develop a discerning approach to the use of data and content collected on the web or produced by artificial intelligence systems. Schools, universities and scientific societies are challenged to help students and professionals to grasp the social and ethical aspects of the development and uses of technology.
The call for universities in particular to “grasp the social and ethical aspects of the development and uses of technology” is so important — and yet so hard to achieve.
Myself and colleagues have been trying to scale this for many years now in higher education through the courses we teach and the programs we run (the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University was set up for precisely this purpose). It’s been an uphill battle. But hopefully there’s growing awareness that future generations desperately need a more nuanced understanding of what it means to innovate in more human-centric and socially responsible ways.
In conclusion …
There’s far more in Pope Francis’ message than I could possibly hope to capture in this handful of quotes — these are just the ones that jumped out at me on a first read.
Irrespective of whether you are religious or not — or whether you’re an AI developer, involved in decision making around AI, or simply someone who’s likely to be impacted in some way by AI — I’d strongly recommend reading the full message.
You may not agree with all of it (I don’t). But it remains one of the more nuanced and human-centric thought pieces on AI I’ve read in a long time.