The Church needs a prophetic voice on technological ethics. Over the past three years, the Vatican has held three events related to ethics in technology and, more specifically, artificial intelligence. In September 2019, the Pontifical Council of Culture and the Dicastery for Promoting Human Development hosted “The Common Good in the Digital Age,” a seminar featuring ethics scholars from around the world. In February 2020, the Pontifical Academy for Life organized a symposium entitled “RenAIssance. For a Human-centric Artificial Intelligence,” which ended with the “Rome Call for AI Ethics,” co-signed by industry leaders from Microsoft, IBM, and others. Finally, on October 21, 2021, the Pontifical Council for Culture held a one-day symposium entitled “The Challenge of Artificial Intelligence for Human Society and the Idea of the Human Person.”
These three events represent the first fruits of Francis’s engagement with the technology community, and each holds importance. The 2019 conference launched the Vatican’s entry into the technological realm, the 2020 conference brought together industry leaders at the Vatican for a conversation about corporate ethics, and the delayed 2021 conference dealt directly with the popular questions of theological anthropology and artificial intelligence. On their own terms, each event was a success, gathering academics, business leaders, and clergy together to discuss the problems of today and tomorrow. But given the scale of the problems that technology presents—growing inequality, corporate domination, and threats to democracy—these events lacked anything resembling the prophetic voice for the poor for which the Holy Father is well known.
A prophetic voice does exist, and it is present, active, and powerful in technology ethics, but currently it resides outside the Church. Ethical studies of technology have generally blossomed in the last decade, but recently they have become dominated by corporate interests, with each major player attempting to out-ethicize the other. Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook have each devoted millions of dollars to tech-ethics initiatives, such as Facebook’s “Responsible AI” project, Google’s ethical tech team (with its constant struggles), and Microsoft’s “Responsible AI” initiative. And yet, as the recently unearthed Facebook Files have shown, a public proclamation to be responsible doesn’t necessarily take priority over the interests of shareholders. These tech giants, like any large corporations, mine profits unyieldingly, often taking advantage of unjust systems without accepting responsibility. They blame the competitive marketplace for their mistreatment of employees, the global mining system for the lack of accountability of rare-earth-mineral harvesting, the needs of international trade for the abuse of Chinese factory workers—and for anything else that may stand in their way, they justify it with the promise of a blissful artificially intelligent future. It is difficult and often dangerous to speak prophetically to the most powerful people, corporations, and governments on earth. It is far safer to discuss whether a future computer may have a soul or whether aliens could be baptized.