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A Friar Serves as AI Ethics Whisperer for the Vatican and Italy

A Friar Serves as AI Ethics Whisperer for the Vatican and Italy

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

“It was a wonderful meditation on what goes on inside,” he said, stepping out into the street in his ascetic robes. “And outside too.”

There's a lot going on for Father Benanti, who, as an artificial intelligence ethicist for both 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 to launch a commission to protect Italian media from chatty LGBT bylines and general AI oblivion. Presided over, and met. Vatican officials will advance Pope Francis' aim to protect the vulnerable from the coming technological storm.

At a conference organized by the ancient knights of malta At the command, he told the crowd of ambassadors that “global governance is needed, otherwise we risk societal collapse,” and he spoke rome callThrough efforts by the Vatican, the Italian government, Silicon Valley, and the United Nations, they helped organize to defend a brave new world in which such chatbots exist.

Father Benanti, 50, the author of several books (“Homo Faber: The Techno-Human Condition”) and a renowned speaker on international AI panels, is a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian Universities of Rome and Harvard University, where he teaches moral theology. Ethics and a course called “The Fall of Babel: The Challenges of Digital, Social Networks and Artificial Intelligence”.

His job is to provide advice from a moral and spiritual perspective for a church and a country that wants to harness and survive the coming AI revolution. He shared his insights with Pope Francis, who in his annual World Peace Day message on January 1 called for a global treaty to ensure the ethical development and use of AI to prevent a world devoid of human compassion, where esoteric Algorithms decide who is granted asylum, who gets a mortgage, or who lives or dies on the battlefield.

These concerns echo those of Father Benanti, who does not believe in the industry's ability to self-regulate and thinks some rules of the road are needed in a world where deep fraud and disinformation can destroy democracy. Are.

They worry that the masters of the AI ​​universe are developing systems that will widen the inequality gap. They fear that the transition to AI will be so sudden that entire professional sectors will be left with menial jobs or nothing at all, robbing people of their dignity and causing a flood of “despair.” This raises huge questions about the redistribution of wealth in an AI dominant universe, he said.

But he also sees the potential of AI

For Italy, which has one of the world's most aging and declining populations, Father Benanti is thinking deeply about how AI can sustain productivity. And all the time he applies his vision of what it means to survive and be human, at a time when 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 blue jeans peeking out from under his black cloak. He passed the second-century Column of Trajan and stepped carefully onto the crosswalk into one of Rome's busiest streets.

“This is the worst city for self-driving cars,” he said. “It's very complicated. Maybe in Arizona.”

His office at the Gregorian is decorated with framed prints of his own street photography – photos of sad Romans smoking cigarettes, a bored couple prioritizing their cellphone rather than their child – and his and Pope Francis's hands. Shaking pictures. His religious vocation, he said, came after his scientific vocation.

Born in Rome, his father worked as a mechanical engineer and his mother taught science in high school. Growing up, he loved “The Lord of the Rings” and Dungeons and Dragons, but he didn't shy away from sports, as he was also a Boy Scout, collecting photography, navigation and cooking badges.

When his troupe of 12-year-olds went to Rome to donate, they met Msgr. Vincenzo Paglia, who was a parish priest at the time but who, like him, would work for the Italian government – ​​as a member of the country's Commission on Aging – and the Vatican. Now Cardinal Paglia is Father Benanti's superior in the Church Pontifical Academy for LifeWhich is charged with grappling with how to promote the church's ethics on life amid bioethical and technological upheaval.

Around the time Father Benanti first met Monsignor Paglia, an uncle gave him a Texas Instruments home computer for Christmas. He sought to re-engineer it to play video games. “It never worked,” he said.

He attended a high school that emphasized the classics – to prove the credibility of his antiquity, he burst out with the opening of the Odyssey in ancient Greek, on his way to work – and a philosophy teacher thought his The future is pondering the meaning of things. But the way things worked held more fascination and he earned an engineering degree from Sapienza University of Rome. This was not enough.

“I started to feel like something was missing,” he said, adding that the engineering major had deleted the mysterious machines kept for him. “I just broke the spell.”

In 1999 his then-girlfriend thought he needed God more in his life. He went to a Franciscan church in Massa Martana in Umbria, where his plan worked very well because he then realized that he needed a sacred place where he could “not stop questioning life.”

By the end of the year he left his girlfriend and joined the Franciscan sect, alarming his parents, who asked whether he was overcompensating for a bad breakup.

He left Rome to study in Assisi, home of St. Francis, and over the next decade, took his final vows as a friar, was ordained as a priest, and defended his dissertation on human enhancement and cyborgs. . He got a job at Gregorian, and eventually as the Vatican's IT ethics guy.

“He is called upon by many institutions,” said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who runs the Vatican's culture department, where Father Benanti was a scientific adviser.

In 2017, Cardinal Ravasi organized an event at the Italian Embassy to the Holy See, where Father Benanti gave a lecture on the ethics of AI, which impressed the Microsoft executives present and asked to get in touch. That same year, the Italian government asked him to contribute to AI policy documents and the following year he successfully applied to sit on its commission to develop a national AI strategy.

Then in 2018, he reconnected with Francis' favorite Cardinal Paglia and told him, “Look, something big is about to happen.” Shortly thereafter, Father Benanti's contacts at Microsoft asked him to help arrange a meeting between Francis and Microsoft's president, Brad Smith.

Father Benanti translated technical terms during the 2019 meeting as part of the Vatican delegation. Francis didn't realize at first what Microsoft had actually done, he said, but he liked that Mr. Smith pulled one of the Pope's speeches out of his pocket on social media and showed the pontiff the concerns he raised. The business executive had exposed and shared.

Francis – who Father Benanti said has become more literate on AI, especially after an image of the Pope wearing an AI-designed white puffer coat went viral – became more animated. The Pope liked it when the discussion was less about technology, Father Benanti said, and more on “what he can do” to protect the vulnerable.

Last month, Father Benanti, who said he receives no payment from Microsoft, attended a meeting between Mr. Gates and Ms. Maloney, the company's co-founder, who is concerned about the impact of AI on the workforce. “He has to run the country,” he said.

he has now appointed Father Benanti will replace the leader of the AI ​​Commission on Italian Media, with whom she was angry.

“Obedience to authority is one of the vows,” Father Benanti said as he tied knots on the corded belt of his robe, marking his Franciscan order’s promises of obedience, poverty and chastity.

That commission is studying ways to protect Italian writers. Father Benanti believes that AI companies should be held liable for using copyrighted sources to train their chatbots, although he worries that this is difficult to prove because the companies are “black boxes”.

But that mystery, for Father Benanti, has once again imbued technology with magic, even if it is of the dark kind. In this way, it was not so new, he argued, while ancient Roman augers turned to the flight of birds for direction, AI, with its vast hold on our physical, emotional and preference data, could be the new predictor. , passing judgment, and setting up false idols in place of God.

“It's something old that maybe we think we've left behind,” said the friar, “but it's coming back.”

https://static01.nyt.com/images/2024/02/09/multimedia/09italy-priest-AI-profile-01-qgkz/09italy-priest-AI-profile-01-qgkz-facebookJumbo.jpg

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