Before dawn, Paolo Benadi 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 meditation on what goes on inside,” he said, stepping out into the street in his divination robe. “And outside too.”
A lot is going on for Father Benadi, who, as the AI ethicist for both 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 met Bill Gates in a meeting with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, chaired a committee seeking to save the Italian media from ChatGPT’s hints and general AI oblivion , and met with 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 the Knights of Malta, he told a crowd of ambassadors that “world governance is needed, otherwise the risk is social collapse.” He also spoke about the Rome Call, the Vatican, the Italian government, Silicon Valley and the UN effort he helped organize.
The author of several books (“Homo Faber: The Techno-Human Condition”) and an international panelist on artificial intelligence, Father Benanti, 50, is a professor at the Gregorian, Harvard in Rome, where he teaches moral theology. ethics and a course entitled “The Fall of Babel: The Challenges of Digital, Social Networks and Artificial Intelligence”.
For a church and a country that wants to harness, and survive, the coming AI revolution, his job is to provide advice from a moral and spiritual perspective. He shares his insights with Pope Francis, who in his annual World Day of Peace message on Jan. 1 called for a global treaty to ensure the ethical development and use of artificial intelligence to prevent a world without human mercy, where undiscovered algorithms they decide who is granted asylum, who gets a mortgage or who, on the battlefield, lives or dies.
Those concerns echoed those of Father Benandi, who does not believe in the industry’s ability to regulate itself and believes some rules of the road are needed in a world where deep misrepresentation and misinformation can erode democracy.
He worries that the masters of the AI universe are developing systems that will widen the gaps of inequality. He fears the transition to artificial intelligence will be so abrupt that entire professional sectors will be left doing menial jobs or nothing, stripping people of their dignity and unleashing floods of “desperation”. This, he said, raises huge questions about the redistribution of wealth in an AI-dominated universe.
But he also sees the potential of AI
For Italy, with one of the world’s most aging and shrinking populations, Father Benanti is thinking hard about how artificial intelligence can sustain productivity. And all the while he applies his view of what it means to be alive and to be human, when the machines seem more alive and human. “This is an intellectual question,” he said.
After his morning meditation, Father Benadi walked, the bottom of his blue jeans peeking out from under his black robes, to work. He passed the second-century Trajan’s Column and carefully entered one of Rome’s busiest streets at the pedestrian crossing.
“This is the worst city for self-driving cars,” he said. “It’s very complicated. Maybe in Arizona.”
His office at the Gregorian is decorated with framings of his own street photography—down-and-out images of Romans crawling over cigarettes, a bored couple who prefer their cellphones to their baby—and pictures of him and Pope Francis doing handshake. His religious inclination, he explained, came after his scientific one.
Born in Rome, his father worked as a mechanical engineer and his mother taught high school science. Growing up, he enjoyed “The Lord of the Rings” and Dungeons and Dragons, but was not into games, as he was also a Boy Scout who collected photography, navigation and cooking badges.
When his 12-year-old troupe visited Rome for charity, he met Mr. Vincenzo Paglia, who was then the parish priest but, like him, would go on to work for the Italian government—as a member of its aging committee country— and the Vatican. Now Cardinal Paglia is Father Benadi’s superior at the Church’s Pontifical Academy for Life, which is charged with how to promote the church’s ethics for life amid bioethical and technological upheavals.
Around the time Father Benadi first met Monsignor Paglia, an uncle gave him a Texas Instruments home computer for Christmas. He tried to reengineer it to play video games. “It never worked,” he said.
He attended a high school that emphasized the classics—to prove his ancient credibility, he broke out, on his way to work, with the opening of the Odyssey in ancient Greek—and a philosophy professor thought he had a future in pondering the meaning of things. But the workings of things appealed more and he pursued an engineering degree at Rome’s Sapienza University. It wasn’t enough.
“I started to feel like something was missing,” he said, explaining that his evolution as an engineering student erased the mysterious machines that held him. “I just broke the spell.”
In 1999 his girlfriend at the time believed he needed more God in his life. They went to a Franciscan church in Massa Martana in Umbria, where her plan worked very well, because then she realized she needed a sacred space where she could “not stop questioning life.”
By the end of the year he had left his girlfriend and joined the Franciscan order, to the surprise of his parents, who asked if he was overcompensating for a bad breakup.
He left Rome to study in Assisi, the home of St. Francis, and over the next decade, took his final vows as a monk, was ordained a priest, and defended his thesis on human enhancement and cyborgs. He got his job at the Gregorian, and eventually as the Vatican’s IT ethics man.
“It is convened by many institutions,” said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravassi, who headed the Vatican’s culture department, where Father Benadi was a scientific adviser.
In 2017, Cardinal Ravasi organized an event at the Italian Embassy in the Holy See where Father Benanti gave a talk on the ethics of artificial intelligence, the Microsoft employees in attendance were impressed and asked to stay in touch. That same year, the Italian government asked him to contribute to policy documents on artificial intelligence, and the following year he successfully applied to join its committee to develop a national strategy on artificial intelligence.
Then, in 2018, he reconnected with the now-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 Microsoft president Brad Smith.
Father Benanti, as part of the Vatican delegation, translated technical terms during the 2019 meeting. Francis, he said, did not understand what Microsoft was doing at first, but liked that Mr. Smith took one of the speeches out of his pocket of the Pope on social media and showed the pontiff the concerns the business executive had highlighted and shared.
Francis — who Father Benadi said became more AI literate, especially after an image of the pope wearing an artificial intelligence white coat went viral — then became more animated. The pope liked it when the conversation was less about technology, Father Benandi said, and more about “what he can do” to protect the vulnerable.
Last month, Father Benanti, who said he receives no payment from Microsoft, attended 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. potential. “He has to run a country,” he said.
Now he has appointed Father Benanti will replace the head of the AI commission for the Italian media with whom she was unhappy.
“Obedience to authority is one of the vows,” Father Benandi said as he fiddled with the knots in the corded belt of his robe, signifying his Franciscan order’s promise of obedience, poverty and chastity.
This committee is studying ways to protect Italy’s writers. Father Benanti believes AI companies should be held accountable for using copyrighted sources to train their chatbots, though he worries it’s hard to prove because companies are “black boxes.”
But this mystery has also, for Father Benadi, 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 as ancient Roman augers turned to the flight of birds for direction, artificial intelligence, with its vast grasp of our physical, emotional and privileged data, could be the new oracles. determining decisions and replacing God with false idols.
“It’s something old that we probably think we’ve left behind,” said the monk, “but it’s coming back.”