Discussion with Father Paolo Benanti | Search and preview




What is the Church’s position on new technologies?

The Church and technology can be strong allies in maintaining a sense of community in today’s changing social environment. We can harness technology to help the weakest in society, children and the elderly, to bring them back into the community and give them a sense of belonging. However, it cannot be ignored that digital tools could also be used to alienate vulnerable people in insidious ways by pushing them towards purely online interactions as a substitute for “real” social relationships. The mission of the Church in this context is to be an active voice in reinforcing the importance of the timeless values ​​of mutual aid and solidarity.


Are there any new technologies that particularly worry you?

It is not about specific technologies but about the philosophy according to which they are implemented. Machine learning and artificial intelligence, for example, have the ability to predict but not to explain. Can we accept the risk that an artificial bias could be propagated with incredible speed by a tireless algorithm, if left to run without human oversight? We need to develop a “guardrail” to keep technology development on track. The same challenge applies to genetics, where you risk losing control over the nature and purpose of genetic modifications if they are taken out of a social context and simply calculated by algorithms as viable or not. Biotechnology could enable us to eradicate hunger from the face of the Earth, or it could enable a new form of cartel control, with the production of synthetic meat eradicating the market for real meat and wiping out ranchers. It could also be used by the richer countries to control the poorer ones by creating dependence on the means of production held only by a few.

Over the past 100 years, the position of the Church has become clear: technology should be used to help communities develop as they wish, rather than to dictate the direction of that development. The problem does not lie in the technology itself but in the absence of guardrails; that’s what we have to keep in mind. And to design this safeguard, we need an alliance between civil society, business, political power – and the goodwill of the people.

“Biotechnology could allow us to eradicate hunger from the face of the Earth, or it could enable a new form of cartel control, with the production of synthetic meat eradicating the market for real meat and wiping out ranchers.”

Is there a new technology that you are particularly passionate about?

In fact, I have a few examples. I have access to GPT-31. It’s exciting because I have a machine that is the perfect interface between me and the computer. The machine can turn a high-level task into a series of basic tasks that an unskilled human being can follow, step by step, and accomplish something. So GPT-3 as a fluid interface between man and machine is exciting to me. The other exciting technology is AlphaFold2. The ability to predict the 3D structure of a protein from its amino acid sequence is a wonderful innovation for drug discovery. These two technologies are a giant step forward.


What are the Church’s guiding principles regarding advances in synthetic biology?

There are two ethical principles that underpin the position of the Church, especially since the installation of Pope Francis. The first is the precautionary principle which basically means: “Think twice, cut once”. The second is to consider the social impact of technology. For example, in many countries where GM crops are used, one of the effects is a shift in productive power, which means that conventional farmers are impoverished. It is a question of social injustice.

“In many countries where GM crops are used, one of the effects is a shift in productive power, which means that conventional farmers are impoverished. It is a problem of social injustice. »

How does the Church view advances in synthetic biology, human enhancement, and genetic engineering?

In terms of crops, we must recognize that seeds are selected by a natural process over centuries as they are exposed to a variety of weather conditions. If we lose this kind of biodiversity by focusing on GM seed production, we risk losing protection against future unforeseen conditions, because any remaining strains may be vulnerable, rather than just breeding. In applying the precautionary principle, we should seek to preserve biodiversity because we cannot know all the possible consequences if we do not. We must also recognize that animals have a right to a certain dignity of life, without unnecessary suffering. Due to the scarcity of human organs for transplant, organs from genetically modified pigs can be vital in saving lives. At the same time, in some countries, experiments are being undertaken to augment pigs, so that they develop more muscle than they would naturally. This latter type of technology is an ethical gray area and must be mastered. More worryingly, there are experiments using synthetic biology to augment humans. Apart from the possibility that this could lead to grim inequalities, there is also the problem of seeing poorer countries becoming proving grounds for rich countries. The Church continues to oppose this kind of unfair and unethical experimentation.


You helped write an ethics pledge for AI, titled The Rome Call for AI Ethics, which was endorsed by Microsoft and IBM. Could you tell us more about this commitment?

The idea is to keep humans up to date with AI. AI should be used not only to optimize profitability, but also to improve human cognition and ultimately make better choices. This kind of ethical design, with human sensitivities at the center, is where we want to find common ground with Big Tech. Tech giants have a lot of power in society and they need guidance on keeping that within human bounds. The idea is to foster a culture of ethical conversation, with multiple voices from a range of businesses. We can’t establish international regulations, but we can encourage the right kind of ethical culture. We can anticipate, we can give some direction, and we can help people find common ground, consensus, where we can then move forward together. We want today’s children to grow up in a world where ethics is a powerful driver of technological development.

The Church is also reaching out to other religious leaders to draft a multi-religious ethical charter to protect society from the harmful effects of AI. Can you expand?

We hope to sign an ethical charter with Muslim and Jewish leaders. Next year we will go to Japan to discuss this with leaders of Buddhism and other religions. This cultural network to facilitate discussion is the greatest soft power available to religion today. We need to provide a platform for discussing these issues.

What do you think a positive future impact of technology looks like?

The best technology can do is to make our way of life sustainable. I admire anyone who uses technology to make the circular economy a reality. From this foundation, we can continue to build towards a future where technology is our friend, rather than something to be feared.

1GPT-3 is the third-generation language prediction model of the GPT-n series created by OpenAI, a San Francisco-based artificial intelligence research lab.
2AlphaFold is an artificial intelligence program developed by Alphabet/Google’s DeepMind, which makes predictions of protein structures.


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