Artificial Intelligence: The Holy See Pleads for an Ethical Algorithm

April 24, 2020

Shortly before the Vatican closed because of the coronavirus, the members of the Pontifical Academy for Life worked on artificial intelligence (AI) and the urgency, for digital developers, to commit to writing an “ethical” algorithm in the different solutions developed. Some people are betting on AI to help fight the pandemic more effectively.

Fr. Paolo Benanti is a professor of moral theology and bioethics at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, a digital specialist and a member of the Academy for Life. During the presentation of the conference held in the Synod Hall on February 26 and 27, 2020, he explained what was at stake in the digital revolution represented by artificial intelligence.

“Following the example of electricity, AI is not necessary to perform a specific action, it is rather intended to change the way, the mode with which we carry out our daily actions,” the Franciscan monk explained.

Automation of Human Knowledge

To correctly formulate the moral problem posed by artificial intelligence, Fr. Benanti recalls what was its genesis: thanks to increasingly powerful computers, an unprecedented capacity for calculation and data storage has become possible, and at the same time, man has begun to accumulate a quantity of data at a dizzying pace.

“In the last two years alone,” says the theologian, “man has produced 90% of the data created throughout history. All of these factors have contributed to the development of certain types of algorithms, which have given birth to the complex world of AI, a world on which scientists have reasoned, at least theoretically, since the 1960s.”

Once the origin of artificial intelligence is remembered, the issue becomes clearer: “the first two industrial revolutions, with coal, steam, oil, and electricity, provided alternative forms of energy to automate what was accomplished by the strength of our arms; the third electronic revolution, which produced the machines, helped to automate work, by dehumanizing the worker through line work. What is going to happen with AI is the automation of all human knowledge.”

The moral problem only becomes bigger: “When the machine replaces man in decision-making, what kind of certainty would we have to let the machine choose who should be treated or not, and how? On what basis should we allow a machine to designate which of us is trustworthy and who is not?” What place for free will, prudent discernment, and human responsibility?

One of the solutions seen by the Academy is to develop the “good” algorithm: “if we want the machine to support man and the common good, without ever replacing the human being, then the algorithms must include ethical values, not just data,” says Fr. Benanti.

For the Franciscan religious, the appeal signed on February 28, 2020 by IBM, Microsoft, and the Academy for Life marks an important step in this direction: “We must be able to indicate ethical values ​​through the numerical values ​​which feed the algorithm.” But faith, justice, or health cannot be reduced to mathematical formulas. Moral certainty is not about probability calculations.

In fact, this is the desire to reduce the highest areas of human intelligence to mathematics or to what can be put into numbers and statistics. Which is strictly impossible. This is to want to make man into a robot, which joins the dream of transhumanism.

Interest in AI has not waned since the Covid-19 outbreak: many countries are using it to simulate containment and deconfinement strategies during a pandemic. The future will say whether an “ethical algorithm” can help find an effective treatment for Covid-19.

Beyond a clear starting analysis, the solutions the members of the Academy have put forward seem nebulous, and should not be widely adopted, as long the values ​​of the major players in the global economy, and those of many of the Church men, remain distant from an authentic Christian social doctrine. You cannot serve God and Mammon.