What did the pope say to the president of Microsoft?

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Jessica Baron, PhD
I am a technology writer and tech ethics consultant whose work has appeared in international news and trade outlets. I have a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science and write about everything from future military weapons to advances in medicine.

No, it’s not a joke. Microsoft President Brad Smith met with Pope Francis last Wednesday at the Vatican to discuss artificial intelligence. They were joined by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia of the Pontifical Academy for Life, the scientific office that promotes the Catholic Church’s positions on human life. The three men discussed “artificial intelligence at the service of the common good and activities aimed at bridging the digital divide that still persists at the global level,” according to a statement.

In an interview that Smith gave to the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano after the meeting, he said the 30-minute conversation included the pontiff’s concerns that “strong ethical and new, evolved laws” are needed to reign in technology and keep it out of the wrong hands.

The Microsoft president listed ethics, A.I., and people-centered tech among his top 10 tech concerns for 2019 in a LinkedIn post in January, claiming that his company was dedicated to playing “a proactive role in addressing the ethical dimensions that require public policy attention.”

While we don’t know much else about the closed-door meeting, there is footage from a slightly larger gathering put on for the press and recorded by Rome Reports, in which Smith can be heard saying “We really feel like this is a critical moment in time.”

In a Tweet the day after the meeting, Smith said: “We live at a time when we must stay true to timeless values as we advance new technology. I spent the afternoon at the Vatican discussing the teachings of the church, #AI ethics, and why we must always put humanity first.”

The meeting came just a few days after U.S. president Donald Trump signed an executive order to dedicate government resources to AI research, a decision likely made in response to China’s growing dominance in the field. While there’s no indication that the men spoke about the executive order and the meeting was undoubtedly scheduled before Trump’s surprise announcement, it does add to the chorus of pleas from around the world for the ethical development of AI, especially as countries appear to be racing towards some invisible “finish line.”

While Pope Francis may have called himself a “disaster” when it comes to understanding technology in the past, the science-friendly pope has taken a keen interest in emerging technologies since his election.

Francis has been a strong advocate of global action against climate change, which was the subject of his 2015 encyclical, Laudato sì.

Last November he spoke to the audience at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ plenary meeting at the Vatican on “Transformative roles of science in society: From emerging basic science toward solutions for people’s wellbeing.” Francis warned attendees that it was not enough to merely follow the principles of ethics, but that the Church expects “a positive service” from scientists.

This echoes the pope’s surprise TED talk at TED2017 in Vancouver, Canada. In his unexpected 17-minute pre-recorded address, he addressed the theme “technology and innovation,” and told the innovators and tech executives gathered that technological innovation should come along with social inclusion.

According to Rome Reports, the Vatican will hold major meetings on the ethics of AI in the coming months and Smith will take part in a later meeting in 2020.

Reuters reported that the Vatican’s Academy for Life and Microsoft also told the pope that they would jointly sponsor a prize for the best doctoral dissertation in 2019 on the theme of “artificial intelligence at the service of human life.”

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