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A friar acts as AI ethics whisperer for the Vatican and Italy| GuyWhoKnowsThings

Before dawn, Paolo Benanti climbed the bell tower of his 16th-century monastery, admired the sunrise over the ruins of the Roman forum and reflected on an ever-changing world.

“It was a wonderful meditation on what happens inside,” he said, stepping out into the street in his friar's robe. “And outside too.”

There's a lot going on for Father Benanti, who, as an expert on artificial intelligence ethics for both the Vatican and the Italian government, spends his days thinking about the Holy Spirit and ghosts in machines.

In recent weeks, the ethics professor, ordained priest and self-proclaimed geek, joined Bill Gates in a meeting with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, chaired a commission seeking to save Italian media from ChatGPT signatures and general oblivion of the AI, and met with the Vatican. officials to promote Pope Francis' goal of protecting the vulnerable from the coming technological storm.

At a conference organized by the former Knights of Malta order, told a crowd of ambassadors that “global governance is needed; Otherwise, the risk is social collapse”, and he spoke of the Call to Romean effort by the Vatican, the Italian government, Silicon Valley and the United Nations that helped organize to safeguard a brave new world with these types of chatbots.

Author of numerous books (“Homo Faber: The Techno-Human Condition”) and a regular member of international AI panels, Father Benanti, 50, is a professor at the Gregoriana, the Harvard of the pontifical universities in Rome, where teaches moral theology. ethics and a course called “The Fall of Babel: The challenges of digital, social networks and artificial intelligence.”

For a church and a country looking to take advantage of and survive the next AI revolution, your job is to provide advice from an ethical and spiritual perspective. He shares his ideas with Pope Francis, who in his annual World Peace Day message on January 1 called for a global treaty to ensure the ethical development and use of AI to avoid a world without human mercy, where inscrutable algorithms decide who is it. who is granted asylum, who gets a mortgage or who, on the battlefield, lives or dies.

Those concerns mirrored those of Father Benanti, who does not believe in the industry's ability to self-regulate and believes some rules are required in a world where deepfakes and misinformation can erode democracy.

He worries that the masters of the AI ​​universes are developing systems that will widen the chasms of inequality. He fears that the transition to AI will be so abrupt that entire professional fields will be left doing menial work, or nothing at all, stripping people of their dignity and unleashing floods of “despair.” This, he said, raises huge questions about the redistribution of wealth in a universe dominated by AI.

But he also sees the potential of AI.

For Italy, with one of the oldest and shrinking populations in the world, Father Benanti is thinking carefully about how AI can keep productivity afloat. And all the time he applies his perspective on what it means to be alive and human, when machines seem more alive and human. “This is a spiritual question,” he said.

After his morning meditation, Father Benanti walked, with the bottom of his jeans peeking out from under his black robe, to work. He walked past Trajan's second-century column and carefully entered the pedestrian crossing of one of Rome's busiest streets.

“This is the worst city for autonomous vehicles,” he said. “It's too complicated. Maybe in Arizona.”

His office at the Gregorian is decorated with framed prints of his own street photographs (images of outcast Romans smoking cigarettes, a bored couple who prefer their cell phones to their baby) and photographs of him and Pope Francis holding hands. His religious vocation, he explained, came after his scientific one.

Born in Rome, his father worked as a mechanical engineer and his mother taught high school science. When he was a child, he loved “The Lord of the Rings” and Dungeons and Dragons, but he was not a recluse with games, as he was also a Boy Scout who collected photography, navigation and cooking badges.

When his group of 12-year-olds visited Rome to do charity work, he met Bishop Vincenzo Paglia, who was then a parish priest, but who, like him, would work for the Italian government (as a member of the country's aging commission). ) and the Vatican. Now Cardinal Paglia is Father Benanti's superior in the church. Pontifical Academy for Lifewhich is charged with grappling with how to promote the ethics of church life amidst bioethical and technological upheavals.

When Father Benanti met Monsignor Paglia, an uncle gave him a Texas Instruments home computer for Christmas. He tried to redesign it to play video games. “It never worked,” he said.

He attended a high school that emphasized the classics (to demonstrate his credibility in antiquity, he burst out, while walking to work, with the beginning of the Odyssey in ancient Greek) and a philosophy professor thought he had a future reflecting on the meaning of things. But the way things worked held a greater attraction, and he earned an engineering degree from the Sapienza University of Rome. It was not enough.

“I started to feel like something was missing,” he said, explaining that advancing in engineering erased the mystique that machines had for him. “I just broke the magic.”

In 1999, his then-girlfriend thought he needed more God in his life. They went to a Franciscan church in Massa Martana, in Umbria, where her plan worked too well because she then realized that she needed a sacred space where she could “not stop questioning life.”

At the end of the year he abandoned his girlfriend and joined the Franciscan order, much to the dismay of his parents, who asked him if he was overcompensating for a bad breakup.

He left Rome to study in Assisi, the home of St. Francis, and over the next decade he took his final vows as a friar, was ordained a priest, and defended his thesis on human enhancement and cyborgs. He got his job at the Gregorian and, eventually, as the Vatican's computer ethics officer.

“It is called by many institutions,” said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who used to head the Vatican's culture department, where Father Benanti was a scientific adviser.

In 2017, Cardinal Ravasi organized an event at the Italian embassy to the Holy See where Father Benanti gave a talk on the ethics of AI. Microsoft officials who attended were impressed and asked to stay in touch. That same year, the Italian government asked him to contribute to AI policy documents and the following year he successfully applied to join its commission to develop a national AI strategy.

Then, in 2018, he reconnected with now-Cardinal Paglia, one of Francis’ favorites, and told him “look, something big is moving.” Shortly afterward, Father Benanti's contacts at Microsoft asked him to help arrange a meeting between Francis and Microsoft President Brad Smith.

Father Benanti, as part of the Vatican delegation, translated technical terms during the 2019 meeting. Francis, he said, didn't realize at first what Microsoft really did, but he liked that Smith pulled one of the speeches out of his pocket. of the Pope on social networks and showed the pontiff the concerns that the executive had highlighted and shared.

Francis, who Father Benanti says has become more literate about AI, especially after an image of the Pope sporting a White quilted coat designed by IA it went viral and then became more animated. The pope liked that the discussion was less about technology, Father Benanti said, and more about “what he can do” to protect the vulnerable.

Last month, Father Benanti, who said he is not paid by Microsoft, participated in a meeting between Gates, the company's co-founder, and Meloni, who is concerned about the impact of AI on the workforce. “She has to govern a country,” she said.

She has now named Father Benanti will replace the head of AI's commission on the Italian media with whom it was unhappy.

“Obedience to authority is one of the vows,” Father Benanti said as he played with the knots on the belt of his tunic that symbolizes his Franciscan order's promise of obedience, poverty and chastity.

That commission is studying ways to protect Italian writers. Father Benanti believes that artificial intelligence companies should be held responsible for using copyrighted sources to train their chatbots, although he worries that it will be difficult to prove this because the companies are “black boxes.”

But that mystery has also, for Father Benanti, once again imbued technology with magic, even if it is of the dark kind. In that sense, it wasn't so new, he said, arguing that while ancient Roman worms turned to the flight of birds for direction, AI, with its enormous understanding of our physical, emotional and preference data, could be the new ones. oracles. determine decisions and replace God with false idols.

“It's something old that we probably think we've left behind,” the friar said, “but it's coming back.”

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