Vatican: Algorithms Under Close Surveillance

March 01, 2023

Whether in the military field or in that of the protection of life, the Church is very attentive to the ever more innovative – sometimes worrying – applications of artificial intelligence, and wishes to give an ethical dimension to the development of algorithms.

The question of the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes was at the heart of the international summit organized in The Hague under the aegis of the Netherlands and South Korea, on February 16, 2023. Among the 60 participating States, the Holy See was represented by Francesca Di Giovanni, expert at the Secretariat of State.

From the outset, the delegate from the Holy See noted the ambiguity of the very title of the summit: to speak of “responsible” artificial intelligence, explains Francesca Di Giovanni, seems “contradictory.” Indeed, the Holy See “reaffirms the urgent need to maintain and justify the difference between people and inanimate objects.”

Because AI-based systems “cannot think, hear, decide, or take responsibility for their actions, because they are devoid of any moral conscience.” At most, they can only “simulate behavior,” whereas “reality can never be reduced to a simple simulation of itself.”

Principles which find their application in the military field: “If important decision-making powers concerning the use of force are delegated to a type of weapon whose behavior is unpredictable, or whose purpose and operational range are not well defined or known” – this is the question of autonomous weapons with a capacity for machine learning – “the crucial link between actions, effects and responsibilities is inevitably compromised,” especially because “any attack army must be carefully weighed and its legitimacy demonstrated.”

Having posed this ethical warning, the Vatican recalls that it does not wish to hinder research in the field of algorithms, but rather to direct it “towards a more appropriate horizon, which is not based solely on criteria usefulness or efficiency, but on the promotion of the common good of humanity.” Concretely, the Apostolic See pleads for the creation of an international agency dedicated to AI, in order to prevent the harmful uses that could be made of it.

In the area of life protection, too, the Vatican is losing ground against the increasingly pervasive rule of the AI. Speaking on February 20 before the Pontifical Academy for Life, the Sovereign Pontiff reminded the participants that they were faced with an urgent task, that of the ethical evaluation of new technologies: “You must ensure that scientific and technological growth is reconciled more and more with a parallel development… in responsibility, values and conscience,” Pope Francis stressed.

“Over these days you will reflect on the relationship between the person, emerging technologies and the common good: it is a delicate frontier, at which progress, ethics and society meet, and where faith, in its perennial relevance, can make a valuable contribution,” added the Argentine pontiff, before warning against the “bad temptation” to make “the virtual prevail over the real.”

“Science without conscience is nothing but ruin of the soul”: this aphorism by Rabelais on which generations of students once expounded has lost none of its relevance, and reminds us that only the Christian faith, because it is founded on authentic divine Revelation – whose two sources are Scripture and Tradition – can shape in man that moral conscience capable of taking up all the challenges of modernity.