Before dawn, Paolo Benanti climbed the bell tower of his 16th-century monastery, admired the sunrise over the ruins of the Roman forum and reflected on an ever-changing world.
“It was a wonderful meditation on what is happening inside,” he said, stepping out into the street wearing his friar robe. “And outside too.”
There’s a lot to do for Father Benanti, who, as an expert on artificial intelligence ethics 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 joined Bill Gates in a meeting with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, chaired a commission seeking to save the Italian media from ChatGPT signatures and general oblivion of the AI, and met with Vatican officials. to further 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 “global governance is necessary, otherwise the risk is social collapse.” He also spoke about the Rome Call, an effort by the Vatican, the Italian government, Silicon Valley and the United Nations that he helped organize.
Author of numerous books (“Homo Faber: The Techno-Human Condition”) and a regular presence on international panels on artificial intelligence, Father Benanti, 50, is a professor at the Gregoriana, the Harvard of the pontifical universities of Rome, where 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 looking to exploit and survive the coming AI revolution, his job is to provide advice from an ethical and spiritual perspective. He shares his insights with Pope Francis, who in his annual World Peace Day message on January 1 called for a global treaty to ensure the ethical development and use of artificial intelligence to prevent a world devoid of human mercy, where inscrutable algorithms decide who is granted asylum, who gets a mortgage, or who, on the battlefield, lives or dies.
These concerns reflect those of Father Benanti, who does not believe in the industry’s ability to self-regulate and thinks some traffic rules are necessary in a world where deep falsehoods and disinformation can erode democracy.
He worries that the masters of AI universes are developing systems that can expand chasms of inequality. He fears that the transition to artificial intelligence will be so abrupt that entire professional fields will be left doing menial jobs, or nothing at all, depriving people of dignity and unleashing waves of “despair.” This, he said, raises huge questions about the redistribution of wealth in a universe dominated by artificial intelligence.
But he also sees the potential of artificial intelligence
For Italy, with one of the world’s oldest and shrinking populations, Father Benanti is thinking carefully about how artificial intelligence can keep productivity afloat. And he continually applies his perspective on what it means to be alive and human, when machines seem more alive and human. “This is a spiritual question,” he said.
After his morning meditation, Father Benanti went to work, the hem of his jeans peeking out under his black robe. He passed Trajan’s 2nd century column and carefully entered one of Rome’s busiest streets at a pedestrian crossing.
“This is the worst city for self-driving cars,” he said. “It is too complicated. Maybe Arizona.
His office at the Gregoriana is decorated with framed prints of his street photographs – images of penniless Romans smoking cigarettes, a bored couple who prefer cell phones to their child – and images of him and Pope Francis shaking hands. His religious vocation, he explained, came after his scientific one.
Born in Rome, his father worked as a mechanical engineer and his mother taught science at high school. Growing up, he loved “The Lord of the Rings” and Dungeons and Dragons, but was no stranger to games, as he was also a Boy Scout who collected photography, sailing and cooking badges.
When his group of twelve-year-olds visited Rome to do charity work, they met Msgr. Vincenzo Paglia, who was then a parish priest, but who, like him, would continue to work for the Italian government – as a member of the national commission on aging – and for the Vatican. Now Cardinal Paglia is Father Benanti’s superior at the Pontifical Academy for Life, which has the task of discussing how to promote the ethics of the Church’s life in the midst of bioethical and technological upheavals.
Around the time Father Benanti first met Monsignor Paglia, an uncle gave him a Texas Instruments home computer for Christmas. He tried to redesign it to play video games. “It never worked,” he said.
He attended a high school that favored the classics – to demonstrate his credibility in antiquity, he exploded, on the way to work, with the beginning of the Ancient Greek Odyssey – and a philosophy teacher thought he would have a future reflecting on the meaning of the things. But the way things worked held a greater attraction, and he earned a degree in engineering from Rome’s La Sapienza University. It wasn’t enough.
“I started to feel like something was missing,” he said, explaining that his progress as an engineering student erased the mystical allure that machines had in him. “I simply broke the magic.”
In 1999 his then-girlfriend thought he needed more God in his life. They went to a Franciscan church in Massa Martana in Umbria, where his plan worked too well because he then realized he needed a sacred space where he “can’t stop questioning life.”
By the end of the year he left his girlfriend and joined the Franciscan order, to the dismay 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 friar, was ordained a priest, and defended his thesis on human enhancement and cyborgs. He got his job at the Gregorian and eventually as head of IT ethics at the Vatican.
“He is summoned by many institutions,” said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who headed the Vatican’s culture department, where Father Benanti was scientific advisor.
In 2017, Cardinal Ravasi organized an event at the Italian Embassy to the Holy See where Father Benanti gave a speech on the ethics of artificial intelligence. Microsoft officials in attendance were impressed and asked to stay in touch. In the same year, the Italian government asked him to contribute to policy documents on AI, and the following year he successfully applied to be part of the commission for developing a national strategy on AI.
Then in 2018 he approached the current Cardinal Paglia, one of Francis’ favourites, and told him “look, something big is moving”. Shortly thereafter, 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 the technical terms during the 2019 meeting. Francis, he said, didn’t realize what Microsoft actually did at first, but he liked that Mr. Smith pulled one of the Pope’s social media speeches out of his pocket and showed the pontiff the concerns the business executive had highlighted and shared.
Francis – who according to Father Benanti has become more expert in artificial intelligence, especially after an image of the pope wearing a white down jacket designed by artificial intelligence went viral – then became more animated. The Pope liked it when the discussion was less about technology, Father Benanti said, and more about “what it can do” to protect the most vulnerable.
Last month, Father Benanti, who said he receives no payment from Microsoft, attended a meeting between Gates, the company’s co-founder, and Meloni, who was concerned about the impact of artificial intelligence on the workforce. “He has to govern a country,” she said.
Now she has appointed Father Benanti to replace the leader of the AI commission on the Italian media who did not like her.
“Obedience to authority is one of the vows,” Father Benanti said as he played with the knots on the cord belt of his robe, signifying his Franciscan order’s promise of obedience, poverty and chastity.
That commission is studying how to protect Italian writers. Father Benanti believes that AI companies should be held accountable for using copyrighted sources to train their chatbots, although he fears that is difficult to prove because the companies are “black boxes.”
But that mystery has also, for Father Benanti, once again imbued technology with magic, even if of a dark kind. In this sense, it wasn’t so new, he said, arguing that just as ancient Roman drills turned to bird flight for orientation, artificial intelligence, with its enormous understanding of our physical, emotional and preferential data, could be the new oracles, determine decisions and replace God with false idols.
“It’s something old that we probably think we’ve left behind,” the friar said, “but it’s coming back.”