Deliver Us From A.I.? This Priest-Led Network Aims to Shepherd Silicon Valley Tech Ethics

Optic’s work involves organizing private meetings for tech leaders and experts to discuss issues around ethics and human dignity raised by emerging technologies.

Pope Francis is hardly a luddite. He’s met with the likes of Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg and has called the internet a “gift from God.” While it might seem odd that the leader of a two-millennia-old religious institution has so much to say about technology, his interest reflects Catholic leaders’ growing interest in—and concern over—the industry.  

In September, Pope Francis warned that, if exploited, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies could lead to “barbarism,” and called for “open and concrete discussions” about the theoretical and moral principles that guide its development. One of the Catholic groups facilitating these conversations is Optic, a non-profit organization and research network that hopes to build a relationship with technology leaders. Through research initiatives, off-the-record conferences, and even hack-a-thons, Optic is promoting a more ethical approach to technological development.

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Pope Francis is hardly a luddite. He’s met with the likes of Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg and has called the internet a “gift from God.” While it might seem odd that the leader of a two-millennia-old religious institution has so much to say about technology, his interest reflects Catholic leaders’ growing interest in—and concern over—the industry.  

In September, Pope Francis warned that, if exploited, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies could lead to “barbarism,” and called for “open and concrete discussions” about the theoretical and moral principles that guide its development. One of the Catholic groups facilitating these conversations is Optic, a non-profit organization and research network that hopes to build a relationship with technology leaders. Through research initiatives, off-the-record conferences, and even hack-a-thons, Optic is promoting a more ethical approach to technological development.

Created in 2012 by the Dominicans, a Catholic mendicant order, Optic has the goal of ensuring that emerging technologies respect human dignity. The organization says it has worked with more than a thousand experts to date, including theologians, technologists, and academics from fields like sociology and anthropology. At its helm is Father Eric Salobir, a banker-turned-priest and long-time consultant to the Holy See.

“People who come and join the network are people who are interested in our purpose, which is putting the human being at the center of the development of disruptive technologies,” says Salobir. “To put the human being at the center means not only [seeing a person as] a customer or a user, but a father, a citizen, a wife, an employee. It’s taking all those dimensions together and trying to foster human dignity in the way those technologies are used.”

Part of Optic’s work involves organizing private meetings for tech leaders and experts to freely discuss the questions raised by emerging technologies. “Being the CEO of a tech company is super tricky because they have to face those ethical issues all the time,” says Salobir.  “They can easily be blamed if something turns bad—but if it’s okay, nobody will congratulate them.”

Optic’s consultations can last up to three days, and follow the Chatham House Rule, meaning that participants are free to share the information received, but may not disclose the identity of any other participant or of the featured speakers. Brian Green, the director of technology ethics at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, says he participated in one of those meetings this year. It included discussions on the ethics of artificial intelligence and whether the technology will centralize or democratize power, Green says. 

“It is very helpful for [tech leaders] to have a space completely off the record just to talk very freely about what they have in mind, their concerns, or their questions,” says Salobir.

Optic’s network is also researching areas like blockchain and the role of data in healthcare. Salobir points to a report Optic will put out later this year on the risks of using artificial intelligence in the insurance industry, in collaboration with academics, regulators, tech companies, and insurance companies in Europe and Canada. Salobir says the concern is that artificial intelligence could make it easier to predict whether someone is likely to become ill and charge them higher rates.

“It means if you’re fortunate, good for you. If not, too bad. It’s not good in terms of solidarity,” argues Salobir. 

Optic has also privately advised governments and international organizations. At one point, the network was working on a startup accelerator (which is no longer active), and has organized several hack-a-thons, including one Optic helped put together last year at the Vatican, focused on using technology to address interfaith dialogue, social inclusion, and the challenges faced by migrants and refugees. Companies like Microsoft, Salesforce, and Google lent their support to the event, which was blessed by the Pope himself. 

“We don’t hide that it’s Judeo-Christian,” Salobir says, but he emphasizes that the organization is focused on finding “common ground” with those of any faith, or no faith at all.

When asked about engaging leaders in atheist- and liberal-leaning Silicon Valley, Salobir says that, even if they’re not religious, many do seek meaning in their work. “They dedicate all their time, all their money, all their energy to build a startup—it has to be meaningful,” he says. “If it’s not, what is the point of waking up every morning and working so much?”

It’s the kind of work that has Salobir finding inspiration in John the Baptist. “He’s the one who connects,” he says. “He’s the one who puts people in touch.”   

There are other Vatican-affiliated groups interested in the impact of emerging technologies, Green says. He points to pontifical academies that have—or will—host conferences on topics including robotics and artificial intelligence. This past September, the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development came together to host a conference on the common good in the digital age that featured Silicon Valley leaders like Reid Hoffman and representatives from Facebook and Mozilla. 

But Green says Optic is somewhat unique in its focus on establishing a reciprocal relationship with the technology industry. “It’s not just that the Church is going to get good information here, but [that] the technologists are going to feel like they’re also being benefitted,” he says.

They’re getting the opportunity to think about technology in a way that they haven’t been thinking about it before, Green adds. “It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”

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