In World Peace Day message, Pope warns of risks of AI for peace

In his message for the 57th World Day of Peace, Pope Francis reflects on the impact of Artificial Intelligence on world peace, and urges the international community to adopt a binding international treaty that regulates its development and use.

By Lisa Zengarini

New technologies must always be directed to “the pursuit of peace and the common good, in the service of the integral development of individuals and communities.”

In his annual Message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Francis urges world leaders to ensure that progress in developing forms of artificial intelligence “will ultimately serve the cause of human fraternity and peace.”

The message, dedicated to the theme ‘Artificial Intelligence and Peace,’ was released by the Vatican on Thursday ahead of the 57th World Day of Peace, 1 January 2024.

Inherent ambivalence of techno-scientific advances

In it, Pope Francis draws attention to the “ethical dimension “of these new technologies which are revolutionizing humanity in all spheres of life, highlighting the ambivalence inherent in any progress in science and technology.

On the one hand, he says, it can lead to the betterment of humanity and the transformation of the world if it “contributes to greater order in human society and greater fraternal communion and freedom”

On the other hand, techno-scientific advances, especially in the digital sphere, “are placing in human hands a vast array of options, including some that may pose a risk to our survival and endanger our common home.”

No technological innovation is “neutral”

The message recalls that no scientific research and technological innovation is “neutral”: “As fully human activities, the directions they take reflect choices conditioned by personal, social, and cultural values in any given age. The same must be said of the results they produce: precisely as the fruit of specifically human ways of approaching the world around us, the latter always have an ethical dimension, closely linked to decisions made by those who design their experimentation and direct their production towards particular objectives.”

This also applies to AI, for “the impact of any artificial intelligence device – regardless of its underlying technology – depends not only on its technical design, but also on the aims and interests of its owners and developers, and on the situations in which it will be employed.”

Therefore, we “cannot presume a priori that its development will make a beneficial contribution to the future of humanity and to peace among peoples.  That positive outcome will only be achieved if we show ourselves capable of acting responsibly and respect such fundamental human values as ‘inclusion, transparency, security, equity, privacy and reliability’”, Pope Francis writes.

Ethical issues

Hence the need, “to establish bodies charged with examining the ethical issues arising in this field and protecting the rights of those who employ forms of artificial intelligence or are affected by them.”

“We have a duty to broaden our gaze and to direct techno-scientific research towards the pursuit of peace and the common good, in the service of the integral development of individuals and communities.”

“Technological developments that do not lead to an improvement in the quality of life of all humanity, but on the contrary aggravate inequalities and conflicts, can never count as true progress,” the Pope says.

The message goes on to highlight the many challenges posed by AI which are “anthropological, educational, social and political.”

Risks for democratic societies

The ability of certain devices to produce coherent texts, for example, “is no guarantee of their reliability.” This, the Pope says, “poses a serious problem when artificial intelligence is deployed in campaigns of disinformation that spread false news and lead to a growing distrust of the communications media.”

The misuse of these technologies can also have other negative consequences “such as discrimination, interference in elections, the rise of a surveillance society, digital exclusion and the exacerbation of an individualism increasingly disconnected from society”, all of which are threats to world peace.

Pope Francis then warns of the risks to democratic societies and peaceful coexistence of the dominant technocratic paradigm behind AI and the cult of unlimited human power: “By proposing to overcome every limit through technology, in an obsessive desire to control everything, we risk losing control over ourselves.”

Algorithms must not determine how we understand human rights

He insists on the “burning” ethical issues posed by AI, including discrimination, manipulation, or social control: “Reliance on automatic processes that categorize individuals, for instance, by the pervasive use of surveillance or the adoption of social credit systems, could likewise have profound repercussions on the social fabric by establishing a ranking among citizens.”

“Algorithms must not be allowed to determine how we understand human rights, to set aside the essential human values of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness”, the Pope stresses, also highlighting the impact of new technologies on the workplace.

Weaponization of artificial intelligence

Pope Francis expresses particular concern for the “weaponization of artificial intelligence,” citing in particular Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS), drawing attention to the risk of sophisticated weapons ending up in the hands of terrorists.

“The most advanced technological applications should not be employed to facilitate the violent resolution of conflicts, but rather to pave the way for peace.”

On the positive side, Pope Francis notes that artificial intelligence can be used to promote integral human development, by introducing “important innovations in agriculture, education, and culture, an improved level of life for entire nations and peoples, and the growth of human fraternity and social friendship.”

Challenges for education

The message goes on to highlight the challenges posed by AI to the education of the new generations who are growing up “in cultural environments pervaded by technology.”

In this regard, the Pope points to the urgent need to educate young people in the use of artificial intelligence. This education, he says, “should aim above all at promoting critical thinking.”

Need for an international treaty to regulate AI

Pope Francis therefore urges the global community of nations to work together to adopt a binding international treaty that regulates the development and use of artificial intelligence in its many forms: “The global scale of artificial intelligence makes it clear that, alongside the responsibility of sovereign states to regulate its use internally, international organizations can play a decisive role in reaching multilateral agreements and coordinating their application and enforcement.”

“It is my prayer at the start of the New Year” the message concludes, “that the rapid development of forms of artificial intelligence will not increase cases of inequality and injustice all too present in today’s world, but will help put an end to wars and conflicts, and alleviate many forms of suffering that afflict our human family.”