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The Friar Who Became Vatican’s Go-To Person on AI | World News


ROME: Before dawn, Father Paolo Benanti climbed to the bell tower of his 16th-century monastery, admired the sunrise over the ruins of the Roman forum and reflected on a world in flux. There is a lot is going on for Benanti, who, as both the Vatican‘s and the Italian government’s go-to artificial intelligence ethicist, spends his days thinking about the Holy Ghost and the ghosts in the machines.
In recent weeks, the ethics professor, ordained priest and self-proclaimed geek has joined Bill Gates at a meeting with PM Giorgia Meloni, presided over a commission seeking to save Italian media from ChatGPT bylines and general AI oblivion, and met Vatican officials to further Pope Francis‘ aim of protecting the vulnerable from the coming technological storm. At a conference organized by the ancient Knights of Malta order, he told a crowd of ambassadors that “global governance is needed, otherwise the risk is social collapse,” and he talked up the Rome Call – a Vatican, Italian government, Silicon Valley and UN effort he helped organize to safeguard a brave new world that has such chatbots in it.
The author of many books (Homo Faber: The Techno-Human Condition) and a fixture on international AI panels, Benanti, 50, is a professor at the Gregorian, the Harvard of Rome’s pontifical universities, where he teaches moral theology, ethics and a course called ‘The Fall of Babel: The Challenges of Digital, Social Networks and AI.
For a church and a country looking to harness, and survive, the coming AI revolution, his job is to provide advice from an ethical and spiritual perspective. He shares his insights with Francis, who in his annual World Day of Peace message Jan 1 called for a global treaty to ensure the ethical development and use of AI.
Benanti does not believe in the industry’s ability to self-regulate and thinks some rules of the road are required in a world where deepfakes and disinformation can erode democracy. He is concerned that masters of the AI universes are developing systems that will expand chasms of inequality. He fears the AI transition will be so abrupt that entire professional fields will be left doing menial jobs or nothing, stripping people of dignity, unleashing floods of “despair.”
He also sees the potential of AI. For Italy, with one of the world’s most aged and shrinking populations, Benanti is thinking hard about how AI can keep productivity afloat.
Last month, Benanti, who said he receives no payment from Microsoft, participated in a meeting between Gates, the company’s co-founder, and Meloni, who is worried about AI’s impact on the workforce. “She has to run a country,” he said. She has now appointed Benanti to replace the leader of the AI commission on Italian media with whom she was displeased. “Obedience to authority is one of the vows,” Benanti said as he fiddled with the knots on his robe’s corded belt signifying his Franciscan order’s promise of obedience, poverty and chastity.
That commission is studying ways to protect Italy’s writers. Benanti says AI firms should be held liable for using copyrighted sources to train chatbots, though he worries it is hard to prove since the companies are “black boxes.”

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