Just Gospel: Praying that Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Serve All

Web Admin

November 03, 2020

Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity Sister Kathleen Murphy shares on Pope Francis’ prayer intention for November.

Pope Francis has given us much to pray and learn about in this month’s intention: That the progress of robotics and artificial intelligence may always serve humankind.

Our first step may need to be a look at definitions. The dictionary tells us the following:

Robotics: the branch of technology that deals with the design, construction, operation, and application of robots. Photo:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Da_Vinci_Surgical_System

Artificial Intelligence (AI): a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers or, the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior

Having determined WHAT we are talking about, now we may ask WHY is this a concern to bring to prayer? Well, let’s look at some areas for apprehension among experts in the field.

  • Not all agree on what AI means. Artificial intelligence is a broad term used to describe everything from machine learning, such as product recommendations on Amazon.com, to “strong AI,” or efforts to build devices with the intellectual ability equal to a human’s. Jack Jenkins May 26, 2018 CRUX
  • There’s a very strong moral question about whether AI-assisted weapon systems can be used to wage a just war. Should a machine be making decisions on the battlefield for human beings? Will a machine be able to follow the responsibilities of just-war theory? Levi Checketts, Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy, Holy Names University, Berkeley, CA
  • Algorithms used by Silicon Valley companies can lead to hiring more men than women, or Google Image search results for “professor” primarily produce pictures of older white men. Professor Shion Guha, Director of Data Science Graduate Program, Marquette University
  • The asymmetry, by which a select few know everything about us while we know nothing about them, dulls critical thought and the conscious exercise of freedom. The inequalities that are expanding enormously with knowledge and wealth accumulate in a few hands with grave risks for democratic societies. Pope Francis

Rome Call for AI Ethics

Clearly there are substantial concerns. Some of these also relate to points dealt with in Open Wide Our Hearts, the U.S. Bishops’ pastoral letter on racism. So let’s look at what the Church is saying and doing in regard to these problems. Pope Francis tasked the Pontifical Academy for Life, in cooperation with Microsoft, IBM and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, to craft what has come to be known as the Rome Call for AI Ethics. Let’s look at 3 core precepts outlined by this group as of February 28, 2020.

  1. AI shall not discriminate
  2. AI shall be good in its intent
  3. AI shall care about sustainability

In what way could artificial intelligence, or use of robots discriminate? Researchers from MIT and the University of Toronto have found that some facial recognition technology labeled darker-skinned women as men 31 percent of the time. Lighter-skinned women were misidentified 7 percent of the time. Darker-skinned men had a 1 percent error rate, while lighter-skinned men had none. Of course, this is just one product and one example of sexual discrimination combined with racial disparity. Other sources and studies cite discrimination due to use of robotics in jobs often filled by low income populations as well as the unavailability of some technological advantages by those who cannot afford devices, or live in remote areas where internet accessibility is lacking.

The second core precept states that AI shall be good in its intent.  This includes the notion that AI and robotics companies need to look beyond mere economic growth and success to consider the ethical ramifications of the tools and products they produce. One example might be the proposed self-driving car. Presumably this would be a financial boon for car companies. However, will these corporations have considered how their product will perform in all situations? Perhaps a child has run out into the street and the car will have to “decide” whether to hit the child or hit a tree which may cause the passengers harm? Will the car be programmed to proceed solely in perceived “safe” environments? Will this mean that the car will not proceed into an area where a tornado has been predicted? Will the car circumvent neighborhoods that its creators have designated unsafe? Companies will have a huge task in insuring that the good be done.

The final core precept deals with sustainability. Pope Francis urged the authoring group to include care for creation and the challenge of ending world poverty and hunger in their considerations. How can AI and robotics function in this area? A combined use of satellite images and AI photo readers can help to locate and define areas of poverty that they might be better served. Robots with AI capability work in fields in third world countries to help determine which types of seeds grow and produce most profitably for the people there. Our experience of education during the pandemic has alerted us to the use of technology in furthering learning. Improved programs and devices as well as greater availability would surely lead to a literate world where our coming generations are schooled in principles of sustainability for the Earth.

Much to Think and Pray About

There is much to think and pray about. Some worry that the growth of artificial intelligence and robotics will lead us into a science fiction-modeled world of horrors in which we, as humans have no power. In answer to those fears, Alan Kay, American computer scientist and winner of the 2003 A.M. Turing Award, the highest honor in computer science says, “Some people worry that artificial intelligence will make us feel inferior, but then, anybody in his right mind should have an inferiority complex every time he looks at a flower.”

Some even fear that artificial intelligence-powered robots will claim a certain humanity and thus would be considered capable of having a spirit. Sister Ilia Delia, OSF tells us, “The key issue here is one of freedom, and that, I think, only belongs to organic biological human personhood. To be called into a relationship and to respond to that relationship is still . . . unique to the human person as an image of God.” Let us go forward with faith in the God that created us to be stewards and use our gifts to continue His work of creation.

Speak Your Mind