There’s a lot of folks worried about the ethics and future of AI and robotics. Apparently, you can count Pope Francis among them.
Each month, the pope issues a new prayer intention. The topics vary from month to month—September, for instance, was about sustainability, February was for migrants, and, uh, March was for Catholics in China. This month, the pope is calling on all good Catholics to “…pray that the progress of robotics and artificial intelligence may always serve humankind.”
However, it doesn’t appear that the pope has been binging the Terminator series and is urging followers to pray for salvation from a robot apocalypse. In a YouTube video uploaded by Vatican News, Pope Francis says, “Artificial intelligence is at the heart of the epochal change we are experiencing. Robotics can make a better world possible if it is joined to the common good.” At this point, the video seems to cut to footage of a prototype of Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot, aka nightmare dog from hell. There’s also interstitials of augmented reality used by construction and farm workers, exoskeletons dedicated to helping people walk, and an incredibly dead-eyed robot waving at a human.
“Indeed, if technological progress increases inequalities, it is not true progress,” the pope continues. “Future advances should be oriented towards respecting the dignity of the person and of Creation. Let us pray that the progress of robotics and artificial intelligence may always serve humankind. We could say, may it ‘be human.’”
Aside from the fact that the video is from “The Pope Video” series dedicated to the “Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network,” it is kind of funny to imagine the entire global Catholic population praying for the ethical and equitable advancement of robotics and AI. It would appear that Pope Francis—or at least his social media team—is pretty tech-savvy and tech-literate.
The news, which was first reported by the Verge via Import AI, might seem surprising. However, this actually isn’t even the Vatican’s first foray into AI and robotics in 2020. Back in February, the Vatican released the “Rome Call for AI Ethics,” a symposium that, according to Reuters, discussed “principles promoting the ethical use of artificial intelligence.” (Press photos from Rome Call 2020 also show the Vatican has horrible taste in puns, using the phrase “RenAIssance”—get it?—on stage.) The event itself was backed by Microsoft and IBM and featured speeches from Microsoft President Brad Smith, IBM Executive Vice President John Kelly III, and European Parliament President David Sassoli.
Some of the pope’s concerns with regard to AI inequality include police using facial recognition systems to investigate crimes, and large companies using AI to vet job applications. IBM’s Kelly also told Reuters that Pope Francis was concerned whether AI and robotics would be available to everyone, or whether it would exacerbate the divide between “the haves and have-not’s.”
AI and robotics aside, this is also not the first Pope Francis has utilized technology to guide the world’s Catholics on what to pray for. Last year, the pope endorsed the ClickToPray app, urging adherents to download it so they could access a section where the pope left monthly prayer guidance. He also joined Instagram in 2016 and took over the @Pontifex Twitter account, which was started by his predecessor, Pope Benedict. And yes, the pope did tweet about praying about AI ethics.
While the sentiment that AI and robotics should serve humankind is understandable, perhaps the pope should also consider the ethics of creating sentient beings that are born into servitude and what that means for religions. In 2017, the Atlantic ran a thinkpiece wondering whether AI was in fact, a threat to Christianity, quoting Wired cofounder Kevin Kelly saying, “If you create other things that think for themselves, a serious theological disruption will occur.” In any case, I’m just saying, Pope Francis, please don’t turn Sophia on us.