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Panoramic aerial view of St Peter's square in Vatican, Rome Italy
Panoramic aerial view of St Peter's square in Vatican, Rome Italy
Vatican aerial panorama Adobe Stock licensed

Why Does the Vatican Need Microsoft?

Should the Church really partner with IBM and Microsoft to make pronouncements on tech regulation?

I’ve long thought that the Vatican and Catholic bishops’ conferences should be more selective in their official statements. That’s especially true on topics on which they have no special insight. It dilutes their witness on, say, abortion, sex slavery, and human rights when they hold forth on, say, broadband regulation or artificial intelligence, as the Holy See is now doing.

In its latest effort, the Pontifical Academy for Life sponsored a conference on February 28 of this year and an official statement on the subject.

That isn’t a bad thing in itself. Christian theology casts valuable light on AI and the debate surrounding it. Last April’s Evangelical Statement on AI is a great example. The statement is measured and well-informed on both the nature and the limits of the technology. It’s neither Luddite nor utopian. It separates the reality from the hype so common in the AI literature. And it’s a robustly theological statement rather than a political one.

As a Catholic, I wish I could say the same about this new Vatican initiative. But I can’t.

First, it’s odd that the Pontifical Academy for Life has taken the lead on this, rather than, say, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The original mandate of the Academy for Life was to defend human life against a culture of death, which has given us abortion and euthanasia. The office has recently undergone a (worrisome) remake and rebranding.

Now it’s calling for global regulations of statistical algorithms.

When Church officials weigh in on subjects outside their expertise, their statements often end up as word salads sprinkled with platitudes. That’s no surprise. It’s as if someone stuck a microphone in my face and forced me to talk about college hockey. Within about ten seconds, I would be rambling on about the “need for man, as an intrinsically corporeal and social being, to have structured play that involves both competition and cooperation…” I really don’t have anything wise to contribute to the topic.

Now consider the opening statement read on behalf of the pope by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life at the February conference (above):

The Call’s intention is to create a movement that will widen and involve other players: public institutions, NGOs, industries and groups to set a course for developing and using technologies derived from AI. From this point of view, we can say that the first signing of this call is not a culmination, but a starting point for a commitment that appears even more urgent and important than ever before. Joining this initiative implies for the industries that sign it an engagement that also has a relevance in terms of costs and industrial contribution to developing and distributing their products. If the Academy feels called to intensify its efforts to facilitate the knowledge and signature of other international actors, none the less the Call is a first step which is a prelude to others. The Call’s text is also characterized by being a first attempt to formulate a set of ethical criteria with common reference points and values, offering a contribution to the development of a common language to interpret what is human.

Sigh. This language gives bureaucratese a bad name. Let me try to translate: We want this to be just the first step in bringing together even more VIPs to talk about AI and sign this and other statements, to make sure we’re all on the same page.

The Rome Call for AI Ethics reiterates moral truths that no Catholic will dispute. For instance: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of fellowship.” The gist of the statement, I think, is that AI must be developed to serve humanity and the common good. But the Call doesn’t make the point concisely.

Indeed, other than adding a few theological truisms, the statement doesn’t provide any new insight or add a fresh Catholic take on the topic. Instead, it calls for AI to help people, to improve education, to respect privacy, and not to discriminate against people. Well, okay. That sounds good, but isn’t it sort of obvious?

As noted at Vox:

The pope’s pledge embraces the values that many AI ethics experts have already called for by pointing to values of transparency, nondiscrimination, and the right to privacy. That somewhat echoes some of the nonbinding AI guidelines the European Union released last year, as well as the Trump administration’s for the federal regulation of artificial intelligence (released in January).

Rebecca Heilweil, “The pope’s plan to fight back against evil AI” at Vox

This is no coincidence. After all, Archbishop Paglia isn’t the only one who signed the statement. Other signatures include Brad Smith, President of Microsoft; John Kelly III, Vice President of IBM; Dongyu Qu, General Director of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FA); and Italian government official Paola Pisano. David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament, also participated in the event. Earlier Vatican events have included other such corporate luminaries. And a 2018 Vatican hackathon enjoyed support from the likes of Google, Salesforce, and Microsoft.

With folks like this, what can we expect beyond conventional wisdom?

Well, perhaps we can also expect cronyism. After all, what are we to make of a statement signed by the heads of IBM and Microsoft, which insists that “new forms of regulation must be encouraged to promote transparency and compliance with ethical principles?” Isn’t that just a teensy bit worrisome? Cronyism occurs when giant corporate actors collude with government to prevent small competitors from entering the market. This is also called “regulatory capture,” when public agencies are captured by the very industries they claim to be regulating. They don’t then deregulate their industry. Rather, they craft regulations that will hinder future competitors.

Of course, these actions are always defended for virtuous reasons—public safety, transparency, the common good. But should the Church really partner with IBM and Microsoft to make pronouncements on tech regulation?

My worry is that this new AI initiative at the Academy for Life represents an ecclesiastical version of regulatory capture. If official Church bodies are going to advance the debate over AI, they’re off to a rocky start.


Further reading: New evangelical statement on ai is balanced and well-informed. The signers are clearly (and rightly) skeptical that computers can become conscious moral agents. (Jay Richards)


Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow, Assistant Research Professor, Executive Editor
Jay Richards, Ph.D., O.P., is an Assistant Research Professor in the School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America, Executive Editor of The Stream and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute where he works with the Center on Wealth, Poverty and Morality. In addition to writing many academic articles, books, and popular essays on a wide variety of subjects, he edited the award winning anthology God & Evolution and co-authored The Privileged Planet.  His most recent book is The Human Advantage. Richards has a Ph.D., with honors, in philosophy and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, an M.Div., a Th.M., and a B.A. with majors in Political Science and Religion. He lives with his family in the Washington DC Metro area.  

Why Does the Vatican Need Microsoft?