Working Group 4 on the ethics of technology and business focuses on a number of emerging opportunities and dangers, including those associated with globalization and artificial intelligence.

While these developments offer an unprecedented opportunity for economic growth and human flourishing, they also pose an unprecedented threat to the future of humanity, i.e., “the civilizational threat posed by the nexus of dogma, economic and political power, and technology” (Nusantara Manifesto, points 49 – 86), which C.S. Lewis anticipated in his seminal work, The Abolition of Man (1943).

Following a description of the innate order of the universe, from which all religions derive their concept of the good (the Tao), Lewis describes the devastating consequences of men, divorced from the Tao, having the power to shape other human beings at will:

St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same….

In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta — that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality. As Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’ and Wordsworth that through virtue the stars were strong, so the Indian masters say that the gods themselves are born of the Rta and obey it.

The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar. ‘In ritual,’ say the Analects, ‘it is harmony with Nature that is prized.’ The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being ‘true.’…

[T]he power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased…. [T]he man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

The second difference is even more important. In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao — a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike….

When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains. It cannot be exploded or ‘seen through’ because it never had any pretensions. The Conditioners, therefore, must come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure. I am not here speaking of the corrupting influence of power nor expressing the fear that under it our Conditioners will degenerate. The very words corrupt and degenerate imply a doctrine of value and are therefore meaningless in this context. My point is that those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.

We may legitimately hope that among the impulses which arise in minds thus emptied of all ‘rational’ or ‘spiritual’ motives, some will be benevolent. I am very doubtful myself whether the benevolent impulses, stripped of that preference and encouragement which the Tao teaches us to give them and left to their merely natural strength and frequency as psychological events, will have much influence. I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently. I am inclined to think that the Conditioners will hate the conditioned….

Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

I am not here thinking solely, perhaps not even chiefly, of those who are our public enemies at the moment. The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany. Traditional values are to be ‘debunked’ and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it. The belief that we can invent ‘ideologies’ at pleasure, and the consequent treatment of mankind as mere ὕλη [material], specimens, preparations, begins to affect our very language. Once we killed bad men: now we liquidate unsocial elements.

Topics addressed by WG-4 also include the need to bring moral and spiritual values to bear in institutional and governmental decision making; the global resurgence of tribalism; threats to human dignity and freedom posed by the erosion of moral and spiritual values in societies worldwide; and the intense polarization that arises from a false binary between universal and particular values.

Father Professor Paolo Benanti — who teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and serves as Advisor to Pope Francis on Issues of Artificial Intelligence and Technology Ethics — delivered a speech at the R20 Summit in Bali titled “Algorethics: The Timeless Values of Religion and Their Irreplaceable Contribution to the Humane and Peaceful Development of Artificial Intelligence.”

Rev. Paolo Benanti is a Roman Catholic priest, theologian and academic, and a member of the Franciscan mendicant order of monks (Third Order Regular of St. Francis)

Algorethics: The Timeless Values of Religion and Their Irreplaceable Contribution to the Humane and Peaceful Development of Artificial Intelligence

R20 Address by Rev. Dr. Paolo Benanti

Excellencies and distinguished guests,

Thank you for your warm welcome. I am here in front of you, whom I thank for participating in this wonderful event, to talk about two things: artificial intelligence and peace. Being here with you at the G20 Religion Forum is a great honor for me. It is also a valuable opportunity. For I hope that your witnessing my appeal — delivered in this august forum, and addressed to the entire human family — will lead to the widest possible dissemination of our shared aspirations and agenda.

We all know that science and technology play a major role in the profound transformations that the world is currently undergoing, particularly in view of their close connection with the domains of economics and finance.

If we subject the role of technology to closer scrutiny, we shall notice that it is affecting and modifying every dimension of human existence, including social relationships. Today, we appreciate the multiple benefits of this transformation. For instance, without technology, it would be impossible for us to interact in real time, or to enjoy the countless innovations designed and created by the human mind.

At the same time, the dangers and grey areas of technology are more difficult to fathom. For technology is not simply a tool. Whether it is beneficial or harmful depends not only on the way we use technology, but on multiple factors that are seldom immediately perceptible.

In fact, the devices that we use have become an integral part of the world we inhabit, to the extent that they are practically invisible components of our social environment.

Over the past few years, technology has gone through increasingly rapid cycles of development, producing more and more innovations. We have witnessed the digital transformation of technology; the emergence of “big data”; and an exponential increase in computational power.

Thanks to these developments, what we may describe as an “Artificial Intelligence Spring” has blossomed, and now permeates the lives of each and every one of us.

But the innovation produced by artificial intelligence is not an unalloyed blessing. It also has many neutral and even sinister aspects which, if not harnessed and directed for the good of all humanity, may evolve to its profound detriment.

In fact, most people are unaware of the operational procedures of artificial intelligence. However, AI is pervasive and ever more present in countless fields, such as manufacturing, healthcare, education, nutrition, security, and other realms that shape our daily lives. In short, AI is everywhere; and thanks to its rising power, its role will continue to increase in the coming years.

We need to pay close attention to what is happening in this arena, because an enormously valuable tool created by the human intellect can turn out to be a valuable friend, making our lives easier; or it can become an instrument of oppression used to control, direct or otherwise influence humanity, especially weak, vulnerable and less educated members of society.

Moreover, artificial intelligence may prove to be “all-defining” for younger generations, future generations, the elderly and the poor.

This is why, a little over two years ago, in February 2020, we launched, together with stakeholders of various kinds, the “Rome Call for AI Ethics.” This appeal, which I am making to you assembled here today, is addressed to international organizations, governments, institutions, the private sector, and society as a whole. Its purpose is to promote a sense of shared responsibility and encourage a joint effort to create a future in which digital innovation and technological progress foster peace. The development of AI in the service of humankind and the planet must be reflected in principles and regulations that protect people — particularly the weak and the underprivileged — and natural environments.

The signatories of the Rome Call commit to respect its six principles. These principles — transparency, inclusion, responsibility, impartiality, reliability, and security and privacy — are the pillars of our work. We call this approach “algorethics.”

At a time when new technologies are constantly multiplying their applications in real life, the Rome Call for AI Ethics urges everyone to say: “Let us think this through. Let us act consciously. Let us consider the consequences of our actions.”

Let’s try to ask ourselves: Do we really want machines to threaten our dignity, our right to live as free and conscious individuals, and the legitimate privacy of our personal lives? Do we really want all of us to be profiled unknowingly, and do we welcome the advent of a world in which algorithms make decisions based on ethnicity, gender and age? Is there really no other solution than entrusting artificial intelligence with decisions on job offers, loans or criminal proceedings? Do we really want to unconditionally trust a mechanism that can create “deepfakes,” which are false but extremely realistic images, video and audio files that can swindle, ruin reputations or undermine trust in democratic decision-making processes? Should we allow new technologies to threaten freedom of association or speech, as we look upon these developments with indifference?

Summing it all up in a single question: do we really want AI to undermine the foundations of peace and human dignity?

Wouldn’t it be better to opt for an artificial intelligence that proves useful in managing complexity to everyone’s benefit; that helps optimize resource management; that yields precious benefits in the fields of medicine and healthcare, and in the performance of tasks that are too difficult or dangerous for human beings to undertake?

The call I mentioned, the Rome Call for AI Ethics, is not aimed at a specific audience that shares our religious and cultural traditions. Since its inception, the Rome Call has attracted the attention of diverse stakeholders who are ready for dialogue, in order to build a better world for all.

The first signatories of the Rome Call were Microsoft, IBM, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the Minister for Innovation of the Italian Government. These stakeholders have diverse interests; however, each of them is willing to embrace its share of responsibility and commit to turn the Call’s principles into decisive aspects of their activities.

Among the many interlocutors we have had so far, I want to mention institutions of higher education — places of knowledge that train future generations — and the other religions with which we are engaged in dialogue. There are many people of good will, throughout the world, devoted to the welfare of humanity at large. I believe the R20 emerges from such an impulse, and view this gathering as an opportunity to initiate new dialogues among the diverse peoples, cultures, and religions of the world, founded upon mutual respect and shared values.

We know that religions play a crucial role in shaping societies where the Human Being stands at the center of development goals, both conceptually and practically. That is why we strongly believe that the development of artificial intelligence should proceed from a shared ethical perspective, which is essential to building global solidarity and peace.

Religious adherents constitute a majority of people living on the Earth. Together, we can make a decisive difference.

We can be the primary advocates of, and joint contributors to, the emergence of a world truly blessed with peace:

  • Peace among us, by developing a shared language based upon timeless values;
  • Peace with machines, avoiding a radical conflict between homo sapiens and this newborn machina sapiens; and
  • Peace with the immense diversity of living species that dwell upon this Earth, by developing and employing innovative technologies that respect the environment in which we live, and which we share with so many other life forms.

My hope is to launch a movement that will act as a catalyst — by favoring an encounter among different perspectives, and proposing an open space for dialogue — to help us grasp the immense impact that the digital transformation is having on the whole world.

My hope is that a global discussion of this topic may lead to concrete outcomes, while favoring communication among at-times competing stakeholders.

But the world does not stop, nor should we: the Rome Call saw the light of day just two years ago, and is already scanning new horizons.

The first horizon concerns sustainability. Our planet, as Pope Francis says, is the common home of the entire human family. The close interdependence that exists between human beings and their social and physical environment is more and more evident. If artificial intelligence is to be present everywhere in our lives, then its development and deployment should not occur without considering this bond.

The second new horizon entails engagement with leaders in the fields of religion, industry, and engineering.

Religion, by its very nature, aspires to peace. If it can open itself to engagement and dialogue, as all of you here today have done, it will find much common ground with those who desire change, and aspire to a future of shared peace.

Only by working together in pursuit of a common goal, participating in shared reflections, and identifying shared solutions, may we leverage our combined influence and thereby shape the development of artificial intelligence in such a way that it benefits our entire planet.

Technology has given us the opportunity to gather here, to enjoy each other’s company and enrich one another through dialogue and the exchange of ideas. Let us leverage the opportunity offered by the R20 as best as we can, so that productive avenues for dialogue and the emergence of a movement for peace and human dignity will multiply!

I hope that each of you shall find a way to endorse the proposals of the Rome Call for AI Ethics and to collaborate in building a more just and peaceful world. Thank you for your attention.

Rev. Paolo Benanti is a Roman Catholic priest, theologian and academic. He is a member of the Franciscan mendicant order of monks (Third Order Regular of St. Francis). He teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and serves as advisor to Pope Francis on issues of artificial intelligence and technology ethics. Prof. Benanti is also Scientific Director of the RenAIssance Foundation, which was established in 2021 in order to support anthropological and ethical reflection upon the impact of new technologies on human life. The RenAIssance Foundation is located within the Vatican City State and is an integral part of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Simo Räsänen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Amir Pashaei, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons