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Pope Francis becomes first pontiff to address a G7 summit, raises alarm about AI

The pope joins a chorus of countries pushing for stronger guardrails on AI.
Italy G7
Posted at 12:56 PM, Jun 14, 2024

Pope Francis challenged leaders of the world’s wealthy democracies Friday to keep human dignity foremost in developing and using artificial intelligence, warning that such powerful technology risks turning human relations themselves into mere algorithms.

Francis brought his moral authority to bear on the Group of Seven, invited by host Italy to address a special session at their annual summit on the perils and promises of AI. In doing so, he became the first pope to attend the G7, offering an ethical take on an issue that is increasingly on the agenda of international summits, government policy and corporate boards alike.

Francis said politicians must take the lead in making sure AI remains human-centric, so that decisions about when to use weapons or even less-lethal tools always remain made by humans and not machines.

“We would condemn humanity to a future without hope if we took away people’s ability to make decisions about themselves and their lives, by dooming them to depend on the choices of machines,” he said. “We need to ensure and safeguard a space for proper human control over the choices made by artificial intelligence programs: Human dignity itself depends on it.”

Francis is joining a chorus of countries and global bodies pushing for stronger guardrails on AI following the boom in generative artificial intelligence kickstarted by OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot.

A depiction of Pope Francis in a white jacket that was generated with artificial intelligence.

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The Argentine pope used his annual peace message this year to call for an international treaty to ensure AI is developed and used ethically. He argues that a technology lacking human values of compassion, mercy, morality and forgiveness is too perilous to develop unchecked.

He didn't repeat that call explicitly in his speech Friday, but he made clear the onus is on politicians to lead on the issue. And he called on them to ultimately ban the use of lethal autonomous weapons, colloquially known as “killer robots.”

“No machine should ever choose to take the life of a human being,” he said.

Directing himself to the leaders around the table, he concluded: “It is up to everyone to make good use of (AI) but the onus is on politics to create the conditions for such good use to be possible and fruitful.”

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni invited Francis and announced his participation, knowing the potential impact of his star power and moral authority on the G7. Those seated at the table seemed duly awed, and the boisterous buzz in the room went absolutely quiet when Francis arrived.

“The pope is, well, a very special kind of a celebrity,” said John Kirton, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who directs the G7 Research Group think tank.

Kirton recalled the last summit that had this kind of star power, that then translated into action, was the 2005 meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland. There, world leaders decided to wipe out the $40 billion of the debts owed by 18 of the world’s poorest countries to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

That summit was preceded by a Live 8 concert in London that featured Sting, The Who and a reformed Pink Floyd and drew over a million people in a show of solidarity against hunger and poverty in Africa.

“Gleneagles actually hit a home run and for some it’s one of the most successful summits,” Kirton said.

No such popular pressure is being applied to G7 leaders in the Italian region of Puglia, but Francis knew he could wield his own moral authority to renew his demands for safeguards for AI and highlight the threats to peace and society it poses if human ethics are left to the side.

“To speak of technology is to speak of what it means to be human and thus of our singular status as beings who possess both freedom and responsibility,” he said. “This means speaking about ethics.”

Generative AI technology has dazzled the world with its capabilities to produce humanlike-responses, but it’s also sparked fears about AI safety and led to a jumble of global efforts to rein it in.

Some worry about catastrophic but far off risks to humanity because of its potential for creating new bioweapons and supercharging disinformation. Others fret about its effect on everyday life, through algorithmic bias that results in discrimination or AI systems that eliminate jobs.

In his peace message, Francis echoed those concerns and raised others. He said AI must keep foremost concerns about guaranteeing fundamental human rights, promoting peace and guarding against disinformation, discrimination and distortion.

On the regulation front, Francis will in some ways be preaching to the converted as the G7 members have been at the forefront of the debate on AI oversight.

Japan, which held the G7’s rotating presidency last year, launched its Hiroshima AI process to draw up international guiding principles and a code of conduct for AI developers. Adding to those efforts, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida last month unveiled a framework for global regulation of generative AI, which are systems that can quickly churn out new text, images, video, audio in response to prompts and commands.

The European Union was one of the first movers with its wide-ranging AI Act that’s set to take effect over the next two years and could act as a global model. The act targets any AI product or service offered in the bloc’s 27 nations, with restrictions based on the level of risk they pose.

In the United States, President Joe Biden issued an executive order on AI safeguards and called for legislation to strengthen it, while some states like California and Colorado have been trying to pass their own AI bills, with mixed results.

Antitrust enforcers on both sides of the Atlantic have been scrutinizing big AI companies including Microsoft, Amazon and OpenAI over whether their dominant positions stifle competition.

Britain kickstarted a global dialogue on reining in AI’s most extreme dangers with a summit last fall. At a followup meeting in Seoul, companies pledged to develop the technology safely. France is set to host another meeting in the series early next year. The United Nations has also weighed in with its first resolution on AI.

On the sidelines of his AI speech, Francis has a full day of bilateral meetings. He had meetings with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as well as invited leaders from Algeria, Brazil, India, Kenya, Turkey. He will also meet with G7 members, including Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron.