A Franciscan Friar of the Third Order Regular (TOR) – I was born on July 20, 1973. Lecturer at the Pontifical Gregorian University, I deal with ethics, bioethics and ethics of technology. In particular, my studies focus on innovation management: internet and the impact of the Digital Age, biotechnology for human improvement and biosafety, neuroscience and neuroscience. I try to focus on the ethical and anthropological meaning of technology for Homo sapiens: as we are a species that has lived in the world for 70,000 years, transforming it, as the human condition is a techno-human condition. Author of about fifteen books and a hundred scientific articles. (www.paolobenanti.com)
The development and spread of artificial intelligence has changed the way we are in the world, as well as our knowledge processes. The turning point is not only technical but
spiritual and philosophical. Great questions that have marked the evolution of Western thought come back to the forefront. Benanti’s voice is one of the most lucid voices of the contemporary world. Open to
innovation in an authentic way, it
follows with passion and a sense of transcendence the shift of
the frontier of knowledge towards increasingly ambitious goals, without ever losing sight of the centrality of values and man. “Only if we know how to include – he explains in the introduction of his stimulating essay – the humanities in the creation of the wise machines can we hope not to produce, in the future more or less near, inhuman societies”. This is an important warning that the ruling classes at all levels should keep in mind
Professor Benanti, what do we still have to understand about artificial intelligence in order to overcome the attitude of fear and astonishment that seems to prevail today in different social contexts?
I would move the matter in a different direction. What we see in society is not so much an attitude of fear, as a sense of unease that is generated by the discovery of a new “tool”. It seems strange that a simple tool can cause this astonishment, but it is not the first time it has happened. When the convex lens was created in the 16th century, two very powerful instruments were born: the telescope and the microscope. The first allowed us to investigate the infinitely large, the second to study the infinitely small. From that moment on, knowledge of the universe has changed forever, we have in fact understood that the earth was no longer at the centre of the solar system and that we are made up of an endless number of cells.
Is something happening in this phase of history that can evoke the revolution of modernity?
There are many similarities. We have a PC that processes the data, generating a new tool, which we call a macroscope, which allows us to study the infinitely complex. The artificial intelligence that operates on large masses of data that is a fundamental garrison now able to broaden the scope of our knowledge. What is happening in many disciplinary fields can give a very good idea of this continuous shift forward of the frontier of knowledge.
Can you give some examples?
Neurosciences, whose most advanced theories have shown how we live immersed in an ecosystem of complex relationships substantiated by neurons, but also the economic and engineering sciences are now based their investigations on reality on the analysis of a huge amount of data. We must, in short, realize that we are at a change of epoch and this, as I mentioned earlier, creates an unease similar to what we experienced with the advent of modernity.
How should such a radical change be addressed?
The transformations in progress are not arrestable, as such, they are neither to be feared nor to be welcomed uncritically. One cannot, in fact, feed the vain claim of stopping the wind with one’s hands. What we can exercise as beings endowed with intelligence and reason is a form of balanced discernment that allows us to grasp all the opportunities that can open up in a universe in the making.
Do robots know more about it than we do?
When we talk about wise machines, do we have to think of “monsters” who will know more about them than we do and who will dominate us? We must understand each other well on this, which is certainly a delicate aspect. When we moved from Africa seventy thousand years ago and lived in different latitudes of the earth, our behaviour was very different from that of many animals. If a mammoth had moved from the Siberian steppes to Africa and Asia, before embarking on this new adventure in its evolutionary history, he would have had to wait for the evolutionary times of a lineage that would lead to the birth of specimens without the thick fur. Man has not observed any expectation, because from the beginning he has equipped himself with adequate tools to prepare his long journey towards progress. In other words, what for other living beings is rigidly confined in DNA, for us it is something open that has to do with the wise use of technological artefacts. The technological artefact is our “trace” that serves to inhabit the world, or if you prefer it is an important way to manifest our humanity.
Don’t you think that the “tools” that telematics makes available to us are, however, quite different from the tools of the past?
That’s true. There was a season in which artefact was a tool tied to the hand, then came the industrial revolution and then came the machine, which programmed and guided by man is able to do operations without ever getting tired..
Are we a step beyond the machine civilization with the AI?
Surely yes, because the machine, to which you refer, has become no longer something that we program, but that we train to do operations. I’m talking about AI and machine learning. The revolution that is so much talked about is the fact that before now we thought that this area was an exclusively human prerogative. We are, instead, faced with another kind of “sapiens” that inhabits the planet, that’s why the understanding of this machine becomes something particularly challenging.
This gives rise to the problem of understanding the physiognomy of this new species. Where are we on this source?
It’s the issue we have to deal with. When we talk about the sapiens machine, we’re talking about that particular feeling of man not
being the only one capable of doing intelligent things on earth. We must get used to this epistemological leap, which in such a strong and clear-cut way had probably never occurred before. It’s actually changing the way we understand and know the world. The correlation of an impressive amount of information with the power of the PCs that make sense of the data has opened up unimaginable horizons.
So it has been won by engineers and computer scientists, who move at ease in this “forest” full of codes and information?
The paradigm we are talking about seems to be actually based on engineering knowledge, this is only partially true. I think of an old saying from Heraclitus, which said that the oracle of Delphi did not speak, nor was it silent, it simply meant.
Can you explain to those who are not very familiar with the myth and history of religions?
Translated into contemporaneity means that we can access these computers that feed on data by working on algorithms. To remain in the analogy we must see the machine as if it were a deity capable of “pronouncing oracular prophecies” on reality.
Hermeneutic capacity remains, however, a human prerogative, let’s not forget it. Is this the most certain lifeline we can hook on?
Of course, it is. The wise machine must not, in fact, enter into Darwinian competition with the man, but become his ally.
Governance for the AI
A very interesting part of the essay talks about AI Governance. To whom should this delicate activity be entrusted and how should it be structured?
Governance is the contemporary translation of a very ancient process. We come from a Western tradition that dates back to the polis, which expresses a way of being of society. The square is the focal point, the place where different social components meet to discuss the common good. In the wake of this reasoning, it must be said that good governance of the AI is not achieved by applying directives that are set from the top down. The effort we must make will be to create spaces where competent people try to combine technological progress with the effective development of the administered community. In short, the image we must have in mind is that of an open agora within which collective intelligence can act to direct the overbearing technological development that is marking this phase of our history to the common good.
Humanities inside technologies. A project or more simply a wish?
When we talk about RenAissance written in English with a capital “A” we want to highlight the attempt to remove data from the center of digital society to reaffirm the man as a protagonist, just as it happened during the great season of humanism.
The game of skills and knowledge always returns with arrogance. A research conducted by Fondazione Poste and the University of Oxford (reported by Elena Agresti and Marco Fiore in the last issue of our magazine n.d.r) focuses on the phenomenon of skill shortage. What p rofiles will it be necessary to have in order to be able to act in the complex world?
There is a problem of training and education. We must give man back the ability to decode what happens. There is a need for a new curriculum in humanities that can give people the ability to read this epistemological turn and to use the technical skills that know how to say what happens within these “boxes” that are the algorithms. As long as we treat the algorithms like black boxes, they will decide for us. In short, the new competences must enable us to make these black boxes transparent.
Businesses facing the fourth revolution
Another thing we must try to understand is to what extent the world of work can be ready to withstand the impact of the “Fourth Revolution”. While trade unions and companies are wondering about the changes taking place, the social doctrine has taken a clear stand on the issue of defending human rights and workers’ rights. Is Pope Francis playing the role of “substitute”?
There is an ecclesiastical culture that seeks to become a ferment for the whole of society. There is a question of meaning on these crucial issues that require social and theological reflection. It seems legitimate to me, as well as necessary, that the Pope’s commitment go in this direction.
Ethics and technological development. The concerns expressed in the last writings of Emanuele Severino come to mind. Are these fears unfounded?
Severino is perhaps too trenchant in his positions. In fact, we know that technology is not only the blind will to power but also a set of answers to a question that man asks himself about the reality that surrounds us. The man who in the past felt threatened by reality has made an instrument called a rifle. That rifle is not only a tool of offence, but it is also a hermeneutic tool, which makes me see the world divided between friends and enemies. That’s where the technological artefact comes in, as an answer to a question about reality. Only if I see the question behind the artefact can I have an ethical relationship with the artefact. To define an ethical code means this: to make the demand from the producer to the consumer resound at all times so that the demand is suffocated with indifference and superficiality.
Author: Massimiliano Cannata