Interview with Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life

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(by Davide Maniscalco, lawyer and AIDR Head of Sicily Region) "If there is 'algocracy' there must also be 'algorithm'". Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, has no doubts: "The technological dimension is at the service of humanity, otherwise discrimination will double". The Vatican, therefore, also questions the prospects of artificial intelligence. While the European Commission has announced the presentation of the "White Paper" on artificial intelligence for next February 19, the Catholic Church insists on calling for a sense of responsibility on the essential "ethical question" of technological progress. Together with the digital giants, Microsoft and IBM, he accepted the challenge of supporting all the actors of the scientific, political and social community involved in various capacities in the enterprise of building a new and equitable "digital humanism" based on human values.

During an interview with link to  Ofcs.report, Monsignor Paglia discussed the role of the Catholic Church in an epochal passage of our contemporary reality. "Progress becomes development when it is governed by ethical choices - he explained - for this it is very important to clarify the semantic meaning of ethics, because if you are precise in the declination of the meaning, you become consistent with the linguistic expressions' ethical dimension 'and' approach anthropocentric'. And so, in full transparency, emerging technologies must also be converging towards a digital revolution that represents a RenAissance, or a new humanism. We are preparing a Call for Ethics - he added - which leads to a critical evaluation of the effects of these technologies, of the risks they entail, of possible regulatory paths, also on the educational level ". The project paper will address the challenges in the ethical, regulatory and health field and will be shared with Microsoft and IBM during the "RenAIssance: for an artificial humanistic intelligence" event to be held next February 28, at the Auditorium of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

So how far can technology go and what is the borderline beyond which evolution is no longer progress? On this Monsignor Paglia follows an orientation: “Let's say that we are in an unprecedented situation today. We are experiencing the last phase of what we can define as a 'vintage change' - he underlines - In the last 70 years we have produced a technique that allows us to destroy everything with nuclear power. And this is a military technique. In fact, we realized it and we immediately produced agreements to remedy it. The second consideration concerns the economic aspect, in particular the senseless exploitation of energy resources. Another worldwide danger has been created which is that of the destruction of the climate and therefore of mankind. We had already been warned and failed. Then four years ago all the heads of government met in Paris to lay a bank. Until now, military techniques and those of capitalist exploitation could be governed in a very direct way: it was enough not to produce them anymore or not to implement them. After Paris we are all more careful even if there is still a very weak conscience ". The president of the Pontifical Academy for Life then highlights a "third wave". “We are faced with new 'emerging and converging' technologies - he highlights - and we have the opportunity to intervene in a 'technical' way on the human race. So there is not only the risk of destruction, but also of self-dehumanization, so much so that someone speaks of post-humanism or an augmented man. Or again, the possibility of creating a sort of new slavery based on a capitalism that this time no longer holds oil but big data. In the face of this we are called to a moral, political 'jolt', I would say simply human. In this sense, faced with this progressive development of technology, if we do not take decisive and adequate action, we risk a new implosion of which we do not know what the consequences will be. Certainly, as a first consequence, there is a risk that the inequalities produced by the economy and by the development of industry, will be much more serious if produced by algorithms ".

The high prelate has repeatedly spoken of a cure that can be worse than the disease.

How ethically do you care about technological development in the medical and scientific fields?

“Here are a number of considerations. Let's start with the rougher, rougher one. Let's start from the proposal of the Japanese scientist (Hiroshi Ishiguro ed) to create a clone of the human being. Here we are faced with a chilling perspective - warns the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life - When this scientist attended the assembly on roboethics last year, he spoke of current human development as the last biological, organic generation. This however is a chilling future. It is true that technological development can offer enormous and extraordinary healing possibilities and all of this is the most logical gateway, and I am also in favor. But I want to make a premise anyway. Technological development comes from man and man does it, for me who am a believer, because he has received a strength, a capacity and an intelligence from God himself. So, technological progress is the result of our hands. Now what is the crucial point in this context? It is awareness of the limit - continues Monsignor Paglia - Moreover, in creation, when the story of Genesis says 'you can eat anything, except that (...)', it really affirmed the concept of awareness of the limit. If we burn awareness we come to the Promethean temptation, that is, to believe we really are gods. So it is one thing to know and care, another account is to know and create. In the sense that not everything that can be done must be done. This is why we must face the progressive technological development in a wise, intelligent way, knowing that the technique is for man and not vice versa. And here is the warning that several thinkers have given us since the 50s. Moreover, Heidegger himself when he said only God can save us, he did not say it for the Christian God, but for the God reason. Only reason can save us. This means, attention: the technique must be at the service of man and not vice versa. So as long as the discovery helps to know to heal and to be always "human", we are on a path I would say dignified of development. It is when it comes to affect and manipulate the human that we must be careful. Now here, in my opinion, the most crucial point comes. Technology is advancing so fast compared to ethical and anthropological awareness that we risk being "late", of not being able to brake the car anymore, which is already in a dizzying descent. The problem is that we have to stay in the car from the beginning and not get to a certain point when, perhaps, it will be difficult. In this sense, the reason for the interest of the Pontifical Academy for Life in these issues is explained, to insert them in a more complex, more wise horizon ". And then Monsignor Paglia stresses: “First of all, when speaking in person, I would add another element to understand it. Because not only the human person exists, the human family exists. So, in a time when technology is global, connections and commerce are global, we must bear in mind that the dimension of technology cannot fail to be at the service of all humanity as well. Integral development concerns both individuals and the whole human family.

The Vatican, in fact, wants to emphasize precisely the issue of possible discrimination related to the development of technology. “The inequalities produced by economic development are more serious than what was thought with a slightly more simplified ideology, that of high tide: if you increase your well-being, you get up both at the ocean liner and the boat. In reality, this did not happen. There are some ocean liners that have risen more, other boats that have almost sunk. In this sense, this divergence which is one of the problems of the crisis of our contemporary society, can make divergence a total slavery. On the other hand, the management of big data is likely to make the transatlantic lifts more and more at the expense of the boats. I give an example - he continues - with facial recognition there are no more rich and poor, but there are absolute tyrants and absolute subjects. Whoever owns gold, big data, can destroy you. So for this I believe that there is a need for a double ethical reinforcement. It is not enough to say, as in the past, that wealth must only be redistributed. There is a need for a growth of knowledge, of law, of participation. So, as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, we cannot give perspectives extrinsically today. We have to be inside to be able to grasp, from within, the potential and also the dangers of new technologies. Here the problem is not only of the end use of the technologies, but it is a question of paying attention to what are the responsibilities of each one in the whole research, experimentation, construction, distribution, personal use and special use of these technological devices and recognition ".

How much is this responsibility felt and how worried is the risk of a sacrifice of the freedom of human self-determination? “I believe - admits the archbishop - that the 'invasion' of the algorithms is in some ways unstoppable. To the point that there are those who speak of algocracy. Having said that, it is clear that if one wants to save human dignity, democracy, the polis in the broadest sense, it is essential, to use a terminology of the French revolution, to maintain the primacy of freedom, equality and fraternity. The dignity of man and the human family must be enriched and not subjugated. So, if there is algocracy there must also be an algorithm to weave the two perspectives together. If I had to imagine it as a fabric, this would have to be made up of threads of algorithms and threads of ethics at the same time. In this sense, freedom, equality and fraternity are three secular and equally evangelical dimensions that can be understood by everyone: by those who believe and those who do not believe.

In this sense, we as the Catholic Church must be the 'sentinels' of those who forge these large masses of data bearing in mind that freedom must be guaranteed and equality must be guaranteed and fraternity must also be promoted. So the technique must propose all this and not deny it. This means that it is essential, in the face of these new technologies, that they are surrounded and interpenetrated by all the decisive realities of society, politics, economics, ethics, religion, working classes, by all institutions, by all sciences. It is essential to promote collegial contamination. The different sciences and social realities must also be convergent. In this sense, I would speak of an indispensable common path. In fact, personally I was impressed because as academics we found ourselves promoting this process not on our initiative, but at the request of one of the largest multinationals ". Monsignor Paglia recounts, therefore, how the IT giants wanted to involve the Vatican within a burning ethical topic for the church as the development of artificial intelligence can be. “The president of Microsoft came to tell us - he recalls - 'we are all engineers, and therefore we are condemned to create new found every week to stay on the market. We know we can do excellent things, for example in medicine, but also dramatic things. At this point we would need, not to do some conference with you, but we would like to ask you if you could accompany us along the process. ' This is the request, which can also be marked by ambiguity (we want the stamp). But here is a "spiritual algorithm" called trust. Because let's not forget that artificial intelligence is only mathematics. Trust is not math. Trust has convinced me that, since we have total freedom to accompany without any conditioning, we could take up the challenge, because the consequences of technological development are so important that, we thought, the Catholic Church cannot remain on the side. In this sense, the example of the social question is appropriate. The Catholic Church at the end of the nineteenth century, with industrial development which obviously put an end to peasant economic culture, felt the responsibility of entering the world of work with a new doctrine, a new thought. Similarly in this historical juncture, we can no longer stand outside looking, also because if you are outside you don't understand from above, you can get too late and then the paradigm has changed too. That is, if you are not directly involved I believe that reality is very difficult to understand. We will be in another world that can speak, dictate rules, speak a language and be in a position that is totally external, unheard, ineffective and therefore useless and, in my opinion, sinful.

What could have been the reasons why Microsoft requested the involvement of the Academy? An ethical dilemma, something that shook them?

“I believe - comments the prelate - that the new management of Microsoft (and in fact I also noticed that of IBM) is different from that of their foundation. And this leadership has faced moral problems and this humanistic dimension has involved them more directly. This was the underlying reason, because they are well aware that without rules it is also a problem for the company itself. And here is an example given to me by President Brad Smith. Compared to facial recognition, which obviously can also be developed by other competitors, if we do not find a legal regulation among all of us we will all fall into the abyss. Conflicts with these instruments are much more dangerous and easier than those with nuclear power. Hence, the need for legal and ethical regulation arises increasingly as the potential of technology grows to the point that both giants agree to submit to some ethical, legal and educational rules. Which is a situation similar to that of the climate. Here in some ways it is even stronger, because here we intervene directly on man, not on the environment. And this is why the ethical and also the juridical click imposes itself to a greater extent and being alone in command of such a shocking revolution is not easy. One feels the need to be in company or in any case to be able to control the other. It is clear that it will be necessary to intervene for an ethical and legal regulation on the use of the algorithm at an international level, otherwise anarchy in the management of big data can become extremely dangerous, even for the survival of the company, in the end. I would say let's put the two together: a little humanism and a little predictable risk and a fear of nuclear power. The fear of destruction may have determined the moral issue a bit like the climate. "

Is there concrete awareness on a global level?

“In Microsoft, yes - the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life replies without hesitation - Globally, I still think not. I am convinced that, like the two other challenges between nuclear power and climate, if we do not hit it with our heads we will not have full awareness. It is true that attention is growing. This must provoke a jolt of participation and rules to be given, both ethical and legal and also educational. However, since technology runs very fast and responsibility runs faster, we must accelerate on this side to help the awareness of governments not simply to guarantee technology but with a truly polis vision. In this I spend one more word on Europe's responsibility because it has a humanistic heritage that has neither the Far East nor the Far West. Not surprisingly, in our event we used the expression humanism ".

Europe has announced that the use of facial recognition technologies by the public or private sector will be banned for a period of time (three to five years), during which a methodology for assessing the impact of these technologies and possible measures to mitigate risks can be identified and developed. In particular, the presentation of the White Paper on artificial intelligence is announced for February 19th. But was this document somehow already shared among all the actors of the Call for Ethics?

"The presence of David Sassoli for the European Parliament demonstrates the clear interest of Europe, as well as the interest of the FAO and I can say that there are other governments that through their embassies ask us to be able to disclose this call internationally and , certainly we will - Monsignor Paglia reveals - Thank God there is an important echo, a sign that there is an important awareness that the more it expands the more it also involves the political level ".

How important are intermediate bodies in this?

“Intermediate bodies are the way forward to prevent society's individualization from going so far as to seek the 'Savior'. Thank God for 'Salvatore' there is only one and it has already saved us. In this sense, therefore, the help, the push to give responsibility to the intermediate bodies, which are there, is not that they are not there, it is only that they are liquefying irresponsibly, it is fundamental. Everyone must do their part and in this the intermediate bodies can certainly help in making people responsible - notes Monsignor Paglia - This is the point of convergence and contamination among all, because this helps the growth of everyone's awareness and positive non-individual intervention but plural ".

Meanwhile, in view of the assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, of the next 26-28 February, the news of the enlargement of the composition of the group of academics has been learned, divided into ordinary, honorary, correspondents, young people.

Is this also a sign of the renewed approach of the Catholic Church to the ethical challenges posed by technological progress?

These appointments, concludes Archbishop Paglia, are in line with the Pope's indications, that is to say, “a renewal in the double logic of enlargement and deepening. The novelty certainly does not lie in a change of the object: Catholic doctrine, Gospel wisdom on the immense gift of human life, must continue to deeply inspire our commitment, to illuminate all aspects of the human experience and culture of life. But the good news of the Gospel on human life asks to be offered as a source of inspiration and as a theme of cultural, political and social dialogue, also and above all with those who do not think exactly like us but, like us, have at heart the life and human society ".

The appointment is therefore postponed to February 26, the inaugural day of the Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, dedicated to artificial intelligence, which will be held at the PAV Auditorium in via della Conciliazione n. 1.

Interview with Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life