Vatican, IBM, and Microsoft unite to debate ethics in AI

At first glance, the scenario may seem strange. When we think about technological development and artificial intelligence, some high tech architecture environments from Silicon Valley or the more modern neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo come to mind. However, it was to the Renaissance splendor of the Vatican with its works by Rafael, Michelangelo, Bernini that the eyes of the scientific community and technology entrepreneurs turned this week. Attention was focused on an agreement made between the Vatican, the state that houses the Roman Catholic Church, and the computer giants  IBM and  Microsoft.

The objective of the agreement is to debate the ethical progress in the area of  Artificial Intelligence. The Vatican has had a specific department focused on the issue of ethics in science for almost twenty years since the pontificate of John Paul II. At that time, the most relevant subject was the cloning of living beings whose landmark was the announcement of the birth of Dolly, the sheep – the first mammal to be reproduced from an adult cell at the  Roslin Institute, Scotland.

Now, in the face of the Artificial Intelligence revolution, top executives from Microsoft and IBM have signed an agreement with Catholic leaders to collaborate on computational technological development solutions “centered on the human being”, as defined by a common document. The manifesto, called Ethics of Rome, was co-signed by Microsoft President Brad Smith, IBM Executive Vice President John Kelly III, and the President of the  Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia.

The issues that will be debated from now on, when Artificial Intelligence seems to be crossing a threshold, are complex and must, as religious and business leaders propose, undergo a wide appreciation. It is up to society to answer questions about the role of the algorithms in the labor market or in personal and affective interactions, for example. And, of course, there is still the most delicate issue of all which is to think about their future status. It may happen that, at the limit, as science fiction works already anticipate, machines will be created with consciences comparable to those of humans.

At a time of great transformations such as the ones we are experiencing, it is not legitimate for science and technology to move forward without an ethical reflection, which helps to establish goals and guide the next steps towards the future. In this sense, uniting such different bodies with this common objective is a healthy exercise of democracy.