Feb 28, 2020 - Technology

Catholic leaders call for ethical guidelines around AI

Illustration of a cross stained glass window shining down on a 0 and 1.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Catholic leaders presented Pope Francis with a broad proposal for AI ethics, education and rights on Friday as part of an AI conference at the Vatican in Rome.

Why it matters: Algorithms are already starting to replace human decision-making, but ethicists and activists say now is the time to speak up on the values those algorithms should embody.

Driving the news: Members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, a group of scholars that studies bioethics, are calling for AI to be developed in a way that protects the planet and safeguards "the rights and the freedom of individuals so they are not discriminated against by algorithms."

  • IBM executive vice president John Kelly and Microsoft president Brad Smith are signing the "Rome Call for AI Ethics" on behalf of the two tech companies.
  • The group outlined ethical principles related to transparency, access and impartiality — what they call an "algor-ethical" framework.
  • It is a "first step toward awareness and engagement" with other companies and international institutions for a public debate about AI ethics, a spokesperson for the Academy told Axios in an email.

Between the lines: AI underpins technology that could be used to make autonomous weapons and is being used to automate jobs, putting the lives and livelihood of many at risk.

  • And in attempting to mimic human intelligence, humans are building technology that is challenging our understanding of ourselves.
  • Delegating decision making to automated systems could also lead to humans becoming less skilled at knowing how to make decisions properly, says Brian Green of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. "How can we as human beings maintain our moral capacities and become better at them while automating a lot of decision-making power?"
  • The Catholic Church is interested in all of these issues, he says.

Last year, the Vatican hosted tech leaders and Pope Francis warned them of the potential dangers of misguided use of AI.

  • “If mankind’s so-called technological progress were to become an enemy of the common good, this would lead to an unfortunate regression to a form of barbarism dictated by the law of the strongest,” Pope Francis said.

Reality check: Confidence in religious institutions is falling in the U.S. and an Edelman report found trust is also waning in tech companies.

The big picture: Tech companies need binding, detailed policies that hold them accountable in addressing the many ethical concerns surrounding AI, says Meredith Whittaker, co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University.

  • "[M]any organizations’ AI ethics guidelines remain vague and hard to implement ... We’re falling into a trap of ethics-washing, where genuine action gets replaced by superficial promises," MIT Technology Review's Karen Hao wrote last year.
  • "Specificity is critical if we are going to tackle the harms these systems could produce," says Whittaker.
  • AI Now's policy recommendations include tech companies making their technology open to analysis by third-party researchers, and whistleblowers at tech companies being protected.

The bottom line: "With AI we have one heck of a mirror that we are looking into," says Kelly of IBM, which has called for "targeted regulation" of AI.

  • "All of these things come down to our human choices and that’s where the great religions of the world and people who think about ethics constantly can guide us because in the end it will come back to us."

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