A brother serves as a whisperer of AI ethics for the Vatican and Italy


Before dawn, Paolo Benanti climbed the bell tower of his 16th-century monastery, admired the sunrise over the ruins of the Roman forum, and reflected on a world in motion.

“It was a wonderful meditation on what’s going on inside,” he said, stepping out into the street in his brother’s robe. “And outside too.”

There’s a lot going on for Father Benanti, who, as the leading ethicist on artificial intelligence in the Vatican and the Italian government, spends his days thinking about the Holy Spirit and ghosts in machines.

In recent weeks, the ethics professor, ordained priest and self-proclaimed geek, joined Bill Gates in a meeting with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, chaired a commission aimed at saving Italian media from Chat GBT signatures and general forgetting of AI, and met Vatican officials will continue Pope Francis’ goal of protecting the vulnerable against the coming technological storm.

During a conference organized by the former Knights of Malta order, he told a crowd of ambassadors that “global governance is necessary, otherwise the risk is social collapse,” and he extolled the virtues of global governance. Call to Romean effort by the Vatican, the Italian government, Silicon Valley and the United Nations that he helped organize to safeguard a brave new world with such chatbots.

Author of numerous works (“Homo Faber: The techno-human condition”) and a fixture on international panels on AI, Father Benanti, 50, is a professor at the Gregorian, the pontifical Harvard University in Rome, where he teaches moral and ethical theology and a course entitled “The Fall of Babel: the challenges of digital technology, social networks and artificial intelligence”.

For a church and country seeking to harness and survive the coming AI revolution, his job is to provide guidance from an ethical and spiritual perspective. He shares his ideas with Pope Francis, who in his annual message for World Peace Day on January 1 called for a global treaty to ensure the ethical development and use of AI to prevent a world without human pity, where inscrutable algorithms decide who is. who has been granted asylum, who gets a mortgage or who, on the battlefield, lives or dies.

These concerns mirror those of Father Benanti, who does not believe in the industry’s ability to self-regulate and believes that certain rules of conduct are necessary in a world where counterfeits and misinformation can erode democracy.

He fears that the masters of the AI ​​universes will develop systems that will widen the chasms of inequality. He fears that the transition to AI will be so abrupt that entire professional fields will find themselves taking menial jobs or nothing at all, stripping people of their dignity and unleashing floods of “despair.” According to him, this raises huge questions about the redistribution of wealth in a universe dominated by AI.

But he also sees the potential of AI

For Italy, which has one of the oldest and declining populations in the world, Father Benanti is thinking seriously about how AI can keep productivity afloat. And all the time he applies his views on what it means to be alive and to be human, while the machines seem more alive and human. “It’s a spiritual question,” he said.

After his morning meditation, Father Benanti walked to work, the bottom of his jeans peeking out from under his black robe. He passed Trajan’s Column from the 2nd century and cautiously entered one of Rome’s busiest streets, at the pedestrian crossing.

“It’s the worst city for self-driving cars,” he said. “It’s too complicated. Maybe Arizona.

His office at the Gregorian is decorated with framed prints of his own street photographs – images of depressed Romans dragging cigarettes, of a bored couple preferring their cell phones to their babies – and photos of him and Pope Francis shaking hands. His religious vocation, he explains, came after his scientific vocation.

Born in Rome, his father worked as a mechanical engineer and his mother taught high school science. Growing up, he loved “The Lord of the Rings” and Dungeons and Dragons, but was not a loner with games, as he was also a Boy Scout who collected photography, navigation and cooking badges.

When his troop of 12-year-olds visited Rome to do charity work, he met Msgr. Vincenzo Paglia, who was then a parish priest, but who, like him, would work for the Italian government – ​​as a member of the national commission on aging – and for the Vatican. Today, Cardinal Paglia is Father Benanti’s superior at the church. Pontifical Academy for Lifewhich is responsible for determining how to promote the Church’s ethic of life in a context of bioethical and technological upheaval.

Back when Father Benanti first met Bishop Paglia, an uncle gave him a Texas Instruments home computer for Christmas. He sought to redesign it for playing video games. “It never worked,” he said.

He attended a high school that emphasized the classics – to prove his credibility in antiquity, he burst out, on his way to work, with the opening of The Odyssey in Ancient Greek – and a philosophy professor thought he had a future in thinking about the meaning of things. But the way things worked had a greater appeal and he pursued engineering studies at the Sapienza University of Rome. It wasn’t enough.

“I started to feel like something was missing,” he said, explaining that advancing in engineering had erased the mystery of the machines that had been reserved for him. “I simply broke the magic.”

In 1999, his then-girlfriend thought he needed more God in his life. They went to a Franciscan church in Massa Martana in Umbria, where his plan worked too well because he then realized he needed a sacred space where he could “stop questioning the life “.

By the end of the year, he had abandoned his girlfriend and joined the Franciscan order, to the dismay of his parents, who asked if he was overcompensating for a bad breakup.

He left Rome to study at Assisi, the home of Saint Francis, and over the next decade took final vows as a friar, was ordained a priest, and defended his thesis on human enhancement and cyborgs . He got his job at the Gregorian, then eventually as head of computer ethics at the Vatican.

“He is summoned by many institutions,” said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, former director of the Vatican culture department, where Father Benanti was a scientific adviser.

In 2017, Cardinal Ravasi hosted an event at the Italian Embassy to the Holy See during which Father Benanti gave a lecture on the ethics of AI. The Microsoft executives in attendance were impressed and invited to stay in touch. The same year, the Italian government asked him to contribute to policy documents on AI and the following year he successfully applied to serve on its commission charged with developing a national AI strategy.

Then in 2018, he reconnected with current Cardinal Paglia, one of Francis’ favorites, and told him “look, something big is moving.” Shortly thereafter, Father Benanti’s contacts at Microsoft asked him to help arrange a meeting between Francis and Microsoft President Brad Smith.

Father Benanti, part of the Vatican delegation, translated the technical terms at the 2019 meeting. Francis, he said, did not realize at first what Microsoft was actually doing, but he appreciated that Mr. Smith pull one of the pope’s social media speeches from his pocket and show the pontiff the concerns the business executive had highlighted and shared.

Francis – who Father Benanti said became more educated about AI, especially after an image of the pope sporting a White down jacket designed by AI went viral – then became more animated. The pope appreciated that the discussion was less about technology, Father Benanti said, and more about “what it can do” to protect vulnerable people.

Last month, Father Benanti, who said he receives no payments from Microsoft, attended a meeting between Mr. Gates, the company’s co-founder, and Ms. Meloni, who is concerned about the impact of AI in the workforce. “She must lead a country,” he said.

She has now named Father Benanti will replace the president of the AI ​​commission on the Italian media with which she was unhappy.

“Obedience to authority is one of the vows,” Father Benanti said as he played with the knots on the drawstring belt of his robe, signifying his order’s promise of obedience, poverty and chastity. Franciscan.

This commission studies ways to protect Italian writers. Father Benanti believes AI companies should be held responsible for using copyrighted sources to train their chatbots, although he fears this will be difficult to prove because these companies are “boxes”. black”.

But this mystery has also, for Father Benanti, once again imbued technology with magic, even if it is dark. In that sense it was not so new, he said, arguing that while the ancient Romans looked to the flight of birds for direction, AI, with its enormous understanding of our physical data , emotional and preferential, could be the new oracles, determining decisions and replacing God with false idols.

“It’s something old that we probably think we’ve left behind,” the brother said, “but it’s coming back.”


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