In October 2022, the Grefenstette Center for Ethics in Science, Technology, and Law at Duquesne University hosted a conversation on AI, algorithms, policy, and faith. Headlining this conversation were Bishop Paul Tighe, Secretary of the culture section of the Dicastery on Culture and Education at the Vatican, and Alondra Nelson, deputy assistant to the president and principal deputy director for science and society at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). This conversation was moderated by John Slattery, the director of the hosting center at Duquesne. The following conversation was edited for length and clarity.
John Slattery: Bishop Tighe and Dr. Nelson, let’s start with the simple questions—why are we here in conversation?
Bishop Tighe: Firstly, Dr. Nelson, thank you for being here and for being part of this dialogue. My presence may be less obvious. Why would somebody from the Church be here talking about technology? That's not really our core business, is it? But one of the things people of faith must understand is that our faith doesn't exempt us from being part of the world in which we live. On the contrary, an integral part of our faith is having a concern for the world, for its future, and for the people who live in it. And one of the issues that's clearly going to shape that future is how digital technologies are transforming our politics, our culture, how we live socially, and transforming education. Artificial Intelligence—AI—promises to go even further and obliges us to think deeply about what it is that makes us human, what it is that makes life worthwhile, how we think of ourselves as being different from other creatures.
JS: Dr. Nelson, let’s start with your new venture released this month by the OSTP: The AI Bill of Rights. Can you walk us through this and tell us why it’s important for us to understand?
Alondra Nelson: Thank you Dr. Slattery, and thank you Bishop Tighe for joining me in conversation today. This document that we released from the White House a couple of weeks ago, the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights, is really a document that means to foster dialogue, so I'm very pleased and honored to be in dialogue and conversation with all of you today.
Let me tell you about the five core protections. First, the systems that we use should work and they should be safe and effective. And if they're not safe and effective, they should not be used. Second, you should be protected from algorithmic discrimination, and automated systems should be used and designed in an equitable way. Third, you should be protected from abusive data practices via built-in protections, and you should have agency over how data about you is used. Fourth, you should know when an automated system is being used and understand how and why it contributes to outcomes that impact you. And fifth, you should have the opportunity to opt out: to have access to a human being or another way to access the right, the opportunity, the thing that you're trying to do, or another way to quickly solve a problem.
We think these principles outline the kind of world that we all want to live in, the world that we should expect. It will take all sorts of different levers to get us to this world.
JS: Bishop Tighe, you've been a part of a lot of standards and guidelines published around the world. What do you feel is important about such documents? What are the difficulties and limitations?
Bishop Tighe: I’ll be honest: I begin with a certain weariness for all these documents, thinking, okay, here is another statement of great rights that will struggle to be relevant. In 2020, Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center analyzed dozens of codes of ethics around the world and found eight core areas of ethics, so we know what they are. But what I liked about the White House document is that it gives it granularity, it digs down. It's rooted in thinking about the people who are working in this area. There's enough in it to give it meat to engage people. It's grounded in reality.
A friend of mine, the head of the Fundamental Rights Agency in Europe, said that the last thing we need to do is invent new rights. We need to apply the existing rights. From a Church perspective, that’s not fundamentally our business. Governments need to regulate. Companies need to bring codes of practice not just to avoid rule-breaking, but actually to become ethical businesses. The Church needs to be in dialogue and discussion with all of the above.
JS: Bishop Tighe, I want to briefly ask about the relationship between technological wealth and global inequity. How do we talk about tech ethics or responsible tech or trustworthy AI while still attending to these deep-rooted societal problems of inequity and poverty that are often exacerbated by modern technology?