Catholic universities must engage with AI’s development, cardinal says

Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, prefect of the Dicastery for Culture and Education, spoke to reporters in the Vatican Museums’ Lapidary Gallery after Pope Francis’ audience with artists June 23, 2022. (CNS Photo by Justin McLellan)

By Justin McLellan

VATICAN CITY — Catholic universities must not recoil from the daunting risks of artificial intelligence but become proactively involved in its ethical development, said the head of the Dicastery for Culture and Education.

Catholic universities are obligated “to a delicate exercise of responsibility” in the “new historical era” represented by AI, said Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, prefect of the dicastery. “Universities and, even more so, universities which share the church’s mission, stand at a crossroads of cultural, scientific and social possibilities.”

Quoting Pope Francis, he said, “mere training in the correct use of new technologies will not prove sufficient” and that “it is not enough to simply to trust in the moral sense of researchers and developers of devices and algorithms,” signaling the need to develop “algor-ethics.”

The cardinal spoke July 13 at the opening of a conference in Milan titled, “The Future of Catholic Universities in the AI Age” organized by the Strategic Alliance of Catholic Research Universities, an international network of leading Catholic universities dedicated to research.

“Catholic universities must indeed dialogue with the new, work unsparingly on current questions and issues, and establish themselves as great laboratories of the future,” he said, since they are “expected not only to actively guard the noble memory of past days, but also to be the probes, and the cradles, of tomorrow.”

With an eye on the risks posed by widespread and unregulated artificial intelligence use, Cardinal Tolentino’s dicastery has worked to bring tech-industry leaders to the Vatican to discuss the ethical development of AI. In January, Pope Francis met with AI pioneers from companies such as Microsoft and IBM and urged them to ensure AI use does not propagate discriminatory practices.

Cardinal Tolentino recalled the pope’s conviction that “only truly inclusive forms of dialogue can enable us to discern wisely how to put artificial intelligence and digital technologies at the service of the human family.”

Corporate money flowing into AI development has already increased from $12.75 billion to $92 billion from 2015 to 2022, according to Statista.

The next “great investment” in AI must be a “human one,” the cardinal said: “An investment in the formation of every member of the human family so that they may develop their cognitive, creative, spiritual and ethical potential and thus contribute, in a qualified way, to the common good.”

“The big question behind artificial intelligence continues to be anthropological. The challenges posed to education cannot be other than those posed, today, to the human person,” said the cardinal.

For that reason, Catholic universities must recall that “they do not live for themselves,” he said. “On the contrary, they develop to the extent that they become capable of listening, capable of co-responsible exercise of collaborative practices, and of a generative encounter of people and cultures.”

“This requires creative intelligence, but also discernment that cannot be partial, nor improvised, but solidly based on one’s values,” he said.

Yet Cardinal Tolentino urged leaders in Catholic education “not to be discouraged by the difficulties of this historical period and to face it, rather, enlightened by that confidence that the Christian promise radiates.”

“Those who inhabit the university world cannot afford not to have hope. Hope is our mission,” the cardinal said. “It is not superficial optimism, but it is knowing how to risk in the right way.”

Catholic News Service
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