Pope Francis raises alarm about AI in G7 summit

Pope Francis challenged leaders of the world’s wealthy democracies on 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 AI human-centric, so that human decisions 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 programmes: Human dignity itself depends on it.”         Francis intended to use the occasion to join the 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.

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.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni invited Francis and announced his participation, knowing the potential impact of his star power and moral authority on the G7.

“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 was the 2005 meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, where members decided to wipe out the USD 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 can wield his own moral authority to renew his demands for safeguards for AI and highlight the threats to peace and society it poses.

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 scrutinising 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, Turkiye. He will also meet with G7 members, including Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday invited Pope Francis to visit India and said he admired the pontiff’s commitment to serving the people.

They met with a warm embrace at the Outreach session of the G7 Summit in Apulia, southern Italy where they joined other world leaders to deliberate on the topic of Artificial Intelligence, Energy, Africa and the Mediterranean.

“Met Pope Francis on the sidelines of the @G7 Summit. I admire his commitment to serve people and make our planet better. Also invited him to visit India,” Modi said in a post on X.

Modi and the BJP have made several overtures to the Christian community before the general elections in the country

Modi was seen in a light-hearted exchange with the 87-year-old head of the worldwide Catholic Church, who was taken around the table in a wheelchair to greet each of the world leaders gathered at the summit venue of Borgo Egnazia.

“It is up to each of us to make good use of AI,” the Pope said in his address at the Outreach session on the topic of Artificial Intelligence, Energy, Africa and the Mediterranean, attended by the participants of the G7 and other leaders of the Global South invited by Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni in her capacity as president of this year’s summit.

She greeted the “Holy Father” and then joined the wheelchair-bound octogenarian as he greeted leaders with handshakes including US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and French President Emmanuel Macron among others.

The Prime Minister met Pope Francis during a private audience at the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican in October 2021.

At the time, the two leaders discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences for people across the world. They also discussed the challenges posed by climate change.

The Prime Minister briefed the Pope about the ambitious initiatives taken by India in combating climate change as well as India’s success in administering one billion Covid-19 vaccination doses. His Holiness is said to have appreciated India’s assistance to countries in need during the pandemic.

According to the PMO, India and The Holy See – the Vatican-based government of the Catholic Church – have friendly relations dating back to the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1948.

India being home to the second-largest Catholic population in Asia is hopeful of a papal visit next year. 

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