The monk who became the Vatican’s go-to man for artificial intelligence

The monk who became the Vatican’s go-to man for artificial intelligence

Before dawn, Paolo Benanti climbed the bell tower of his 16th-century monastery, admired the sunrise over the ruins of the Roman Forum, and contemplated a world in flux.

“It was a wonderful reflection on what was going on inside,” he said as he walked into the street in his monk’s robe. “And outside too.”

There’s a lot going on for Father Benanti, who, as an AI ethics expert for 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 has joined Bill Gates in a meeting with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, chaired a committee seeking to rescue Italian media from ChatGPT bylines and general AI oblivion, and met with the Vatican. Officials to advance Pope Francis’ goal of protecting the vulnerable from the coming technological storm.

At a conference organized by the ancient Order of Malta, he told a crowd of ambassadors that “global governance is required, otherwise the danger is social collapse,” and spoke of the appeal of Rome, the Vatican, the Italian government, Silicon Valley, and Europe. He helped organize a United Nations effort to protect a brave new world containing such robots.

The author of several books (“Homo Faber: The Techno-Human Condition”) and a core member of international AI committees, Father Benanti, 50, is a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Harvard University in Rome, where he teaches moral theology . Ethics and a course entitled “The Fall of Babel: Challenges of Digital, Social Networks, and Artificial Intelligence.”

For a church and country looking to harness and survive the coming AI revolution, his job is to offer counsel from a moral and spiritual perspective. He shares his thoughts with Pope Francis, who in his annual message for the International Day of Peace on January 1 called for a global treaty to ensure moral development and the use of artificial intelligence to prevent a world devoid of human compassion, where mysterious algorithms decide who is to be granted asylum, or Who gets a mortgage, or who lives or dies on the battlefield.

These concerns echo those of Father Benanti, who does not believe in the industry’s ability to self-regulate and believes some rules of the road are needed in a world where deepfakes and disinformation can erode democracy.

He worries that the masters of artificial intelligence worlds are developing systems that will widen inequality. He fears that the move to artificial intelligence will be so abrupt that entire professional fields will be left to do menial jobs, or nothing, stripping people of their dignity and unleashing a flood of “despair.” He said this raises enormous questions about the redistribution of wealth in a world dominated by artificial intelligence.

But he also sees the potential of artificial intelligence

For Italy, which has one of the world’s most aging and shrinking populations, Father Benanti is thinking carefully about how artificial intelligence can maintain productivity. Throughout, he applies his perspective on what it means to be alive, to be human, when machines seem more alive and human. “This is a spiritual question,” he said.

After his morning meditation, Father Benanti walked to work, the bottom of his blue trousers showing from under his black robe. He passed the 2nd-century Column of Trajan and cautiously entered one of Rome’s busiest streets at the footpath.

“This is the worst city for self-driving cars,” he added. “It’s too complicated. Maybe in Arizona.”

His office at the Gregorian Hotel is decorated with framed prints of his street photographs — images of Romanians dragging cigarettes, a bored couple preferring their cell phones to their child — and pictures of him and Pope Francis shaking hands. He explained that his religious calling came after his scientific calling.

Born in Rome, his father worked as a mechanical engineer and his mother taught high school science. Growing up, he loved “The Lord of the Rings” and Dungeons and Dragons but wasn’t cut out for gaming, as he was also a Boy Scout collecting badges for photography, navigation and cooking.

When his band of 12-year-olds visited Rome to do charity work, he met Msgr. Vincenzo Paglia, then a parish priest, but like him, would go on to work for the Italian government — as a member of the country’s commission on aging — and the Vatican. Now Cardinal Paglia is Father Benanti’s boss at the Church’s Pontifical Academy for Life, charged with grappling with how to advance the Church’s ethics of life amid bioethical and technological upheaval.

About the time Father Benanti first met Monsignor Paglia, an uncle gave him a Texas Instruments home computer for Christmas. He sought to redesign it for playing video games. “It never worked out,” he said.

He attended a high school that focused on the classics — and to prove his cred in antiquity, he exploded on his walk to work with the opening of The Odyssey in ancient Greek — and his philosophy teacher thought he had a future pondering the meaning of things. But the way things were done was more appealing, so he went on to earn a degree in engineering at Sapienza University in Rome. It wasn’t enough.

“I started to feel like something was missing,” he said, explaining that advances in engineering had removed the mysterious machines he had in mind. “You simply broke the spell.”

In 1999, his then-girlfriend thought he needed more of God in his life. They went to the Franciscan church of Massa Martana in Umbria, where her plan worked very well because he then realized that he needed a sacred space where he “couldn’t stop questioning life.”

By the end of the year, he had dumped his girlfriend and joined the Franciscan order, much to the consternation of his parents, who asked him if he was overcompensating for a bad breakup.

He left Rome to study in Assisi, home of Saint Francis, and over the next decade, he took his final vows as a monk, was ordained a priest and defended his thesis on human and cyborg enhancement. He got his job at the Gregorian, and eventually as the Vatican’s IT ethicist.

“Many institutions hold his meetings,” said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who ran the Vatican’s culture department, where Father Benanti was scientific adviser.

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

Then in 2018, he reconnected with Cardinal Paglia, a favorite of Francis, and told him “Look, something big is moving.” Soon after, Father Benanti’s contacts at Microsoft asked him to help arrange a meeting between Francis and the head of Microsoft, Brad Smith.

Father Bennanti, part of the Vatican delegation, translated the technical terms during the 2019 meeting. He said Francis did not initially realize what Microsoft had really done, but he liked that Mr. Smith pulled out of his pocket one of the pope’s social media letters and showed the pope the concerns highlighted by the CEO. For business and share it.

Francis — who Father Benanti said has become more familiar with artificial intelligence, especially after a photo of the pope wearing an AI-designed white puffer coat went viral — has become more animated. Father Benanti said the pope liked when the discussion was less about technology, and more about “what he can do” to protect the vulnerable.

Last month, Father Benanti, who said he receives no payments from Microsoft, participated in a meeting between Mr. Gates, the company’s co-founder, and Ms. Meloni, who is concerned about the impact of artificial intelligence on the workforce. “She has to run the country,” he said.

You are now appointed Sr. Bennanti replaces the head of the Italian media’s artificial intelligence committee, with whom she was dissatisfied.

“Obedience to authority is one of the vows,” Father Benanti said, fiddling with the knots on the belt of his robe, signifying the Franciscan order’s promise of obedience, poverty and chastity.

This committee is studying ways to protect Italian writers. Father Benanti believes AI companies should take responsibility for using copyrighted sources to train their chatbots, although he worries this will be difficult to prove because companies are “black boxes”.

But this mystery also, for Father Benanti, has once again imbued technology with magic, even if it is of the dark kind. In that way, it wasn’t so new, he said, arguing that with ancient Roman drills turning to the flight of birds to determine direction, artificial intelligence, with its vast understanding of our physical, emotional and preference data, could be the new revelation. Making decisions, replacing God with false idols.

“It’s an ancient thing that we may think we’ve left behind, but it will come back,” the monk said.

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