This past week the Vatican hosted a high-level discussion in the world of science, gathering experts to discuss the progress, benefits and limits of advances in artificial intelligence.
A new conference at the Vatican drew experts in various fields of
science and technology for a two-day dialogue on the “Power and Limits
of Artificial Intelligence,” hosted by the Pontifical Academy for
Among the scheduled speakers were several prestigious scientists,
including Stephen Hawkins, a prominent British professor at the
University of Cambridge and a self-proclaimed atheist, as well as a
number of major tech heads such as Demis Hassabis, CEO of Google
DeepMind, and Yann LeCun of Facebook.
The event, which ran from Nov. 30-Dec. 1, was hosted at the Vatican's
Casina Pio IV, the headquarters of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences,
which is headed by their chancellor, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo.
Werner Arber, a Protestant and president of the academy who works in
the field of evolutionary biology, said that while artificial
intelligence isn't his specific area, it's important for the Vatican
entity to have a voice in the discussion, since their task is “to follow
all actual developments in the field of natural sciences” in order to
stimulate further research.
As far as the discussion on artificial intelligence is concerned,
Arber said it's important to understand current developments, which
include increasing dialogue as to whether research done on natural
sciences can then be applied to the field of machinery and robotics.
Part of the debate, he said, has been whether or not machines could
eventually take on some of the work human beings have traditionally
done. However, he cautioned that there would be some “social-scientific
implications,” since this could eventually lead to less work for people.
This is “an ethical aspect, do we want that or not?” Arber said,
noting that human beings have a unique thinking and problem-solving
capacity, and “it’s not good” if this gets pushed too far to the side.
It's a “very important task of our human life...so we have to be careful to preserve our duties,” he said.
Also present at the meeting was Demis Hassabis, CEO of British
artificial intelligence company DeepMind, founded in 2010 and acquired
by Google in 2014. He spoke on the first day of the conference about the
possibility of moving forward “Towards Artificial General
Part of Hassabis' work involves the science of “making machines
smarter,” and trying to build learning systems that allow computer
systems to learn directly from data and experience in order to
eventually figure out tasks on their own.
In comments to CNA, he noted how he has established an ethics board
at the company to ensure that things don’t get out of hand while
research is moving forward.
Artificial intelligence “is a very powerful technology,” he said,
explaining that while he believes technologies in and of themselves are
neutral, “it depends on what you end up using that technology for.”
“So I think as a society we need to think very carefully about the
ethical use of technologies, and as one of the developers of this kind
of artificial intelligence technology we want to be at the forefront of
thinking how to use it responsibly for the good of everyone in the
world,” he said.
One of the ways his company's work is currently effecting Google is
through little things such as how to organize photos and recognize
what’s in them, as well as the way a person’s phone speaks to them and
the optimization of energy that Google’s data centers use.
Hassabis said he thinks it’s “really interesting” to see the wider
Catholic community taking an interest in the discussion, and called the
Church’s involvement a great way “to start talking about and debating”
how artificial intelligence “will affect society and how we can best use
it to benefit all of the society.”
Stanislas Dehaene, a professor cognitive neuroscience at the College
de France and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, was also
present at the gathering, and spoke to participants on day two about
“What is consciousness, and could machines have it?”
Dehaene told CNA/EWTN News that “enormous progress” has been made in
terms of understanding the brain, and in part thanks to these
advancements, great steps have also been taken in modeling
neuro-networks which eventually lead “to superb artificial intelligence
With a lot of research currently being done on consciousness, Dehaene
said a true “science of consciousness” has developed to the point that
what happens to the brain when it becomes aware of a piece of
information is now known “to such a point that it can be modeled.”
“So the question is could it be put in computers?” he said,
explaining that this is currently being studied. He said he personally
doesn’t know yet whether there is a limit to the possibilities for
artificial intelligence, or what it would be.
However, he stressed that “it's very important” to consider how
further advances in artificial intelligence “will modify society, how
far can it go and what are the consequences for all of us, for our jobs
in particular,” he said.
Part of the discussion that needs to take place, Dehaene said, is
“how to put ethical controls in the machines so they respect the laws
and they respect even the moral laws” that guide human decisions.
“That is an extremely important goal that has not been achieved yet,”
he said, adding that while he personally doesn’t have a problem with a
machine making ethical judgments similar to that of a human being, the
question “is how to get there” and how to make sure “we don't create a
system that is full of machines that don’t look like humans, that don’t
share our intuitions of what should be a better world.”
Another major tech head present for the conference was Professor Yann
LeCun, Director of Artificial Intelligence Research at Facebook.
What they try to do at Facebook is to “push the state of the arts to
make machines more intelligent,” LeCun told CNA. The reason for this, he
said, is that people are increasingly interacting through machines.
Artificial intelligence “would be a crucial key technology to
facilitate communication between people,” he said, since the company’s
main focus “is connecting people and we think that artificial
intelligence has a big role to play there.”
Giving an example, LeCun noted that every day Facebook users upload
around 1 billion photos and that each of them are recognized, and
artificial intelligence systems then monitor the content of the photo in
order to show users more images they might be interested in, or filter
those they might object to.
“It also enables the visually impaired to get a textual description
of the image that they can't see,” he said, “so that is very useful.”
In terms of how this technology might transform the way we live,
LeCun said that within the next few years or even decades, “there will
be transformative applications” of artificial intelligence visible and
accessible to everyone.
Self-driving cars, the ability to call a car from your smartphone
instead of owning one, no parking lots and safer transportation are all
things the LeCun said he can see on the horizon, with medical advances
being another area of rapid growth.
“There are already prototype systems that have been demonstrated to
be better than human radiologists at picking out cancerous tumors,” he
said, explaining that this alongside a “host of other applications” are
going to make “a big difference.”
When it comes to the ethics of the discussion, LeCun noted that there
are both short-term and long-term concerns, such as “are robots gonna
take over the world?”
“Frankly these are questions that we are not worried about right now
because we just don't have the technology that's anywhere near the kind
of power that's required. So these are philosophical discussions but not
immediate problems,” he said.
However, short-term debate points include how to make the artificial
intelligence systems that already exist safer and more reliable.
LeCun noted that he has helped set up a discussion forum called
“Partnership for AI” that was co-founded by Facebook, Google, Microsoft,
Amazon and IBM in order to facilitate discussion on the best ways to
deploy artificial intelligence.
Both ethical and technical questions are brought up, he said, noting
that since it's a public forum, anyone from different fields such as
academia, the government, social scientists and ethicists are able to
participate and offer their contributions.