As a young engineer, a simple question about life’s meaning directed Paulo Benanti’s journey to an unexpected destination – living in a monastery next to the Vatican. Now known as Father Benanti, he’s a Franciscan monk, but he’s also a technology and bioethics professor who advises Pope Francis on the ethics of artificial intelligence. In this episode, we discuss how the Rome Call for AI Ethics puts people at the center of AI development, how it provides faith leaders common ground with tech companies, and why the tango best illustrates Pope Francis’ passion for ensuring that AI serves all of humanity, including the world’s poorest. Learn more about how you can get involved in the Rome Call for AI Ethics at RomeCall.org.
As a young engineer, a simple question about life’s meaning directed Paulo Benanti’s journey to an unexpected destination – living in a monastery next to the Vatican. Now known as Father Benanti, he’s a Franciscan monk, but he’s also a technology and bioethics professor who advises Pope Francis on the ethics of artificial intelligence. In this episode, we discuss how the Rome Call for AI Ethics puts people at the center of AI development, how it provides faith leaders common ground with tech companies, and why the tango best illustrates Pope Francis’ passion for ensuring that AI serves all of humanity, including the world’s poorest.
Learn more about how you can get involved in the Rome Call for AI Ethics at RomeCall.org.
Click here for the episode transcript
Brad Smith: I'm Brad Smith, and this is Tools and Weapons. On this podcast, I'm sharing conversations with leaders who are at the intersection of the promise and the peril of the digital age. We'll explore technology's role in the world as we look for new solutions for society's biggest challenges.
Father Benanti: The power that we have in our hand needs a purpose, needs a direction, and this direction has to be universal.
Brad Smith: That's Father Paolo Benanti, a Franciscan monk, engineer, teacher, and advisor to Pope Francis on artificial intelligence. He has played a central role in the creation and ongoing adoption of the Rome Call for AI Ethics. He recently helped bring together leaders from the worlds of technology, civil society, and the three Abrahamic religious faiths, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. All for a common purpose, to ensure that AI serves humanity.
Brad Smith: In this episode, we discuss how he finds inspiration everywhere, from engineering, to the monastery, to soccer fields as he explores the questions at the heart of what it means to be human in an age of artificial intelligence. We cover the importance of finding what we have in common to help build bridges across the many things that divide us and where the Rome Call is heading next. My conversation with Father Benanti, up next on Tools and Weapons.
Brad Smith: Today I'm in Rome for a conversation with someone I've known for several years now, someone who I think brings together one of the most fascinating combinations in the world. He works at the frontier of technology, with artificial intelligence and ethics, but he plays many different roles. And he starts his day in a very different way for most of us. Welcome Father Paolo Benanti, and let me ask you if I could, Paolo, to start this, describe how your day begins as a Franciscan monk, and then we'll talk about how your day progresses. Because to me it's almost like two different lives that come together.
Father Benanti: So first of all, it's my pleasure to be here and thank you for having me today. Well, I wake up early, we can say that way. Then I have my community life. That means that all the friars that live together in the same place, in the same monastery, we meet in the church and we have these early morning prayers just to remember us, why we are there and what is the horizon, the last two horizon. And then the normal life, if I can say in that way, start because I work, I teach at the university and I'm involved with different international institutions and then I'll be back to home.
Brad Smith: Let's unpack each of those things if we could. Your monastery has how many monks in it today?
Father Benanti: Well, I'm a Franciscan. That means that we live to understand one with the other like brothers. And so we spread in little family. So our style is to have not more than six, seven people, otherwise it becomes like more a barracks with military. So we try to keep a family size. That mean that the monastery where I live now, it's made by six people. The eldest is 101 year old-
Brad Smith: 101 years old.
Father Benanti: Yes, is brilliant, still brilliant. And the youngest is 25 year old.
Brad Smith: And is everyone in your monastery an academic, a professor by training or before retiring?
Father Benanti: Yes. The fact is that monastery is in the center of Rome, and so it's really convenient to work with academy or other staff. The older one, before he get retired, he was involved with the Vatican in international relationship, in first of his background. Then we have music professor, we have philosophy professor, we have spirituality professor, we have ethics professor like myself, and we have students, too.
Brad Smith: And then you leave the monastery. To see you walking in the streets of Rome is to see someone with your robe on, even if you have your jeans and sneakers on underneath. But you head off to the rest of your day. Tell us a little bit about what you teach and how you go about that part of your day.
Father Benanti: Well, my teaching is focused on ethics and the university asked me to go deep in different field. One for example, is bioethics, and that is really urgent because the developing of technology in medical field give us a lot of power. But it sometimes gives us also the duty to make choices that could be not so easy to do. And another thing that is my personal field is ethics of technology. It happens that when I switch to the Order, when I join this life, I come from engineer[ing]. My background was in technology, but I have the deep feeling that technology is not enough for my deepest question. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live in this century? And so finding philosophy, theology, and also ethics was a way to simply try to understand better the life. And well, to make short a long story, when I apply for a PhD, Georgetown University tell me, come here to study.
Father Benanti: My perspective was what is the connection between ethics and technology? And I found a professor that simply, with an example, give me the perspective that I was looking for. He brings me to New York City and shows me the huge six lane highway that is connecting Manhattan to Long Island. And he asked me, "What do you see?" To make short a long series of answers, the only correct answer was concrete and asphalt. Then he brings me back to a public library in New York when I can read [the] life, one of the most prominent politicians in New York, Robert Moses, that was the one that make the projection of the highway [in] the last century. And he has a real clear view of the society. The best part of the society has to be for the best part of the city.
Father Benanti: So there has to be this matching. And they make the bridges on the parkway taller than the standard, so no public transportation can move on that. And the summary of the lecture was, every technological artifact is a displacement of power, is a form of order. Ethics of technology is simply questioning technology to allow people to be aware of this kind of transformation, to allow public decision makers to be aware of which kind of changing will be driving inside the society with that technology. That's what I'm looking for and that is what I try to teach.
Brad Smith: I want to just pause for a second and put an exclamation point next to some of what you just said. Because I think you captured issues that are just at the heart of public discussion, rightly so. As we go through the months of 2023, in some ways the year almost felt like it began in November and December as people started to experiment and use ChatGPT. We're seeing this, I think every month in this year, you get more momentum, certainly at Microsoft and with OpenAI, we're taking all of these steps. But at its heart you also see people asking the questions you just posed, what does this mean for humanity? And as you said, you have to think a little bit about what does it mean to be human? What does technology mean when it intersects? How do we govern this intersection? Just as you were saying a little bit like how you govern the connection between Manhattan and Long Island. In a way that takes us to another part of your journey. You're not only teaching at a great university in Rome, you're not only teaching at a great university in Rome, you're not only building on your engineering expertise and ethics, but you have emerged in recent years as, really, the great technology and ethics advisor within the Vatican, including to Pope Francis. How did that happen?
Father Benanti: Oh, sometimes you didn't project the results before you do it. Everything happens with human connections, simply with the people that you meet, discussion that you have. And when you pose questions and people say, "This is the same question that I had in my heart," that happens that you find people that are connected. And the same things happen with Microsoft. I meet people and, with sharing with people this deep kind of question, you build up a place in which those questions could be simply asked. And it happened also in the Vatican, in the Holy See. So simply questioning technology, not in the way in which someone would like to control and limit it, but just asking why, and not how much is too much, but why? And that happened that this connection arise and grow and grow and, at the end, I'm here now.
Brad Smith: It's fascinating because it does take a village of similarly thoughtful individuals, is the way I would put it. And you have that here in the Holy See. You are at the intellectual forefront of this, your boss, so to speak, one of them, Monsignor Paglia, the Archbishop. Tell us a little bit about the role that the two of you play together on this.
Father Benanti: This is a story that comes from the past in the sense that, when I grew up, when I was a child, Monsignor Paglia at that time was my parish priest. I was not yet an academic, but I was good playing football and sometime, with my ball, I break some glasses in his parish, but this is another story. But that make me know him and he knows me.
Father Benanti: So when my interest, my academic interest, my contacts, and my connection grow up to a certain amount of intensity, I be back to him and said to him, "Look, we can do something really good." He hears me. He said, "Yes, I think that this is the next big thing." And together, we start to build inside the Vatican, inside the entity that he's running, that is the Pontifical Academy for Life, a special section in which protecting life means to understand how to remain human in a so powerful moment for technology.
Father Benanti: And this is the start of the story. And then everything happens slowly, and then faster, like nowadays because, as the technology is growing up and as we saw that the technology is taking a major slot of our life. I'm talking about the pandemic. During the pandemic, everyone at one point saw that digital environment are needed for our life. So this is that start as a side option, become much, much more central and much, much more important. And this is where we are now. So every day that we are much more connected and much more in touch with powerful tools, like ChatGPT, we are much more asking to ourself how to remain human, how to humanize technology.
Brad Smith: And I think that notion of humanizing technology is a big part of what you are working to do here. And I would just note that, even with the best efforts that you have brought and that Monsignor Paglia has brought, I'm not sure it would've had the impact that it is now having without the critical sponsorship of a Jesuit, in this case, Pope Francis. And you've noted, you and I have met and conversed together with Pope Francis, not every pope in the history of the Catholic Church would've necessarily embraced this topic the way he has and has supported you. What, in your view, makes Pope Francis different?
Father Benanti: Well, first of all, if I have to answer in a faith perspective, is the one that the spirit is giving to us in this time. So this is the first answer. The second one is also that he came from the other side of the world, actually, and he saw the differences in the world and he saw also how much things are going and how much we need to change the attitude of the church. If I can express it with a joke, with a sentence, he moved the church from a waltz, really German dance, to a tango, really Latin American one. And with tango, you are more passionate about the dance, and he's passionate of the human beings. He's passionate of everything that is touching the human life. So when we talk to him and when we said to him, "Look, we are changing the human life," it was immediately at the stake of the question. And he said, "That's important. Let's play that game."
Brad Smith: This has manifested itself in many forms, but I think the most tangible has been what is now called the Rome Call for AI Ethics, something that you and I were together here in Rome in February of 2020, literally just a couple of days before the whole world closed down. Thankfully, we were here before then. We signed it. There are many people who know about it, but many people who do not. From your perspective, not just being present at the creation, but in many ways, being one of the creators, tell us about the Rome Call.
Father Benanti: Well, Rome Call, once again, is an end of a journey and the starting of another one. The end of a journey was also the way in which I get in contact with Microsoft because it happened that Italy Embassy at the Holy See and talking about the algorithms, ethics and artificial intelligence, and one of the Microsoft, Pier Luigi Dal Pino, at that time, come to me and said, "Well, it's interesting what you're saying because it's really near to the feeling of our company," and we start to have a discussion.
Father Benanti: And in the discussion, I discovered that the question that I was posing has a huge resonation also in company, also in what the company are doing. And we start to think with Microsoft and other people, simply, let's do something that can be an advocacy for this humanistic approach to technology. Let's try to call all the goodwill people around the world that would like to have a positive contribution to work together because that could happen.
Father Benanti: And then we start to draft this idea of this manifesto, this call, and it happened that the manifesto was written down, the call was written down, and it happened that huge company, huge government, huge international institutions, not only [the] Catholic Church, but also the Food and Agriculture Organization, part of the United Nations, jumped in and said, "It's the same things that we would like to affirm," and Rome Call arise.
Father Benanti: It's interesting because it was a tough time. Rome Call, if you remember in 2020, was the last public event held before the pandemic spread out and lock ourself in. So also during the pandemic, [the] Rome Call, it's like ashes that burn, but remain hot. And now that everyone is starting back to be in the public, to be all together, we can meet other religions, like the Abrahamic religion, like Jewish and Muslim.
Father Benanti: And the unbelievable thing is that, for the first time, we are agreeing on something, three and a half billion believers looking at technology, say that's a gift, but is also a tool that we can use to empower our life, especially in the poorest part of the world where the religion still has a lot of presence, but this is also a terrible weapon.
Father Benanti: This is not well used. And we see that in a lot of country, not democratic country around the world. And so the urgency of that collect people around the Rome Call, and [the] Rome Call become an echo chamber for a goodwill messages. And I'm so surprised on how things are going.
Brad Smith: There are so many interesting layers, if you will, to this conversation because as you put it, the Rome Call is an advocacy call for a humanistic approach to technology. One of the many things I like about the Rome Call is almost the three dimensions that I see in it. One is this set of ethical principles that speaks directly to people in say the technology sector, the principles that they need to apply as they create AI applications and tools and the like. The second is to all of us in the technology sector much more broadly, to really think about how we can use this new technology to serve all of humanity, especially I would say in a call that comes from Pope Francis's focus on ensuring that we really think hard about how to serve the poorest of the poor around the world. And I think that's just a fundamental opportunity that has been opened up.
Brad Smith: And the third dimension, which I find so interesting, something you don't tend to see certainly in every set of principles for AI and ethics, is also to focus on not just ensuring that this serves every person, but our planet, our home, our common home, as Pope Francis says, in short, the sustainability needs. So these three dimensions have come together.
Father Benanti: It's like a well-made knot. When you have knots, you have to tie together all the different elements. And this is what's happening with Pope Francis. If I can frankly speak, I have to say that this pope has a huge ability to set the agenda. He opened up two new topics, environment, and also the peaceful coexistent of people around the world. And it opened up these two topics just before it became the main agenda point in the worldwide news. And these two principles were really clear to all the church because he gives to the church these two [urgent] pillars, working one way in another way. And so Monsignor Paglia and myself, and all the people that are in contact with him, simply breathe of that and try to express it in a public document like the Rome Call for AI Ethics. And this is interesting because we are not simply saying we have to use a precautionary principle; we are pushing the limit of the call to include all the common house, to use the Pope Francis word, all the environment and also every human beings on the face of the earth that mean to not left behind anyone.
Brad Smith: The Rome Call in part is a common vision for a divided world. And so to bring together leaders, not only of the Catholic Church including Pope Francis, but of Judaism, of Islam, all together, three religions, as you said, that reach more than 3 billion people, but religions that sometimes including in our own generation have been characterized or thought about as part of the divisions of our world. But here, everyone has been united. Tell us a little bit about the journey, your conversation as a leader in one religion, talking with other religions. How did you find this common ground?
Father Benanti: Well, I mean it's a matter of perspective because if you try to define what is your identity, you're building up something that is splitting you from the others. You are building up probably a wall that defines what's yours and what is not yours, you are building up the frontier. And we saw this new digital continent that is the new frontier where you have a lot of possibility, but sometime you have also a lack of law. And this is something that surface every day on the cyber news and things like that. And if we look in the perspective to find a common ground in this new continent, it's much, much easier not to build identities that have to fight one with the other, but to build bridges. So the same bricks can be used to make wall or to build bridges. We try to build bridges.
Father Benanti: Then like I said before like with Microsoft, things arise from personal connections, also with the other religions happen with personal connection. Like you said before, I'm really local. I grow up here and like every Italian, I have my fixation, and my fixation is soccer. And the local football team AS Roma soccer, it's also the fixation of some Muslims and some local Hebrews. And so starting from soccer, we can say we can build a common ground to build also much more important things. It's important to recognize that we can stay together because there is a democracy, because there is something that is common for every one of us. No one should be above the law, no one should be above the common ground that allows us to stay together as a citizen in a common environment.
Father Benanti: Rome Call is taking this pillar, bringing in this pillar, all the unique wisdom [and] tradition of religion. So we are asking every one of us in his own religion to bring the best of the wisdom that he has to contribute to keep the humanity and environment at the center of our effort.
Brad Smith: It was fascinating to me being here this week in this conversation and of course, these three religions which people think about typically as being different share an obviously common set of roots. And as I listen to each of the religious leaders speak, they each captured one of the common themes that each promotes the advance of knowledge and then the use of that knowledge to benefit humanity. And that also strikes me as something very important here that people who are listening to this might not think of in their first breath – "Oh yes, that's what religion does. It helps encourage the advance of knowledge." Have you found that element to be important is you've been talking with your peers in these other religions?
Father Benanti: Religions and churches are not made only by clergy. It's also made by a lot of faithful. And those faithful teach at university, are involved with technology. They are engineers, they are also people that work in law. And so the unbelievable thing was when we were projecting to have this event, is to see how believers of the three different religions that are simply working on those fields would like to join us and said, oh, I'm so happy that our leaders speak about this topic because every day I face this challenge. And to have the ability to discuss it also with a religious perspective is what I'm meaning about that.
Father Benanti: And I think that this is interesting because culture is changing, and [becoming] a positive contributor to a culture of openness or to a culture that simply allows tools to benefit the majority of people. Also with, let me use a metaphorical expression, blessing of religious perspective, it's something that can help in that direction and it's something that simply surprised me.
Brad Smith: Now, engineers, as you know, because you are one, tend to be pretty practical people. Engineering is a very practical discipline. For the engineers who might be listening, people who might be going to work today and creating an AI application, what do you hope they will take away from the Rome Call?
Father Benanti: Well, the first thing is that they are not alone. It's not just a matter of [engineering]. We know for computer science that every software is made of a chain of statements, if this then that. Well, every time that you say “if this” it’s not just a matter of number, it's not just a matter of numerical values, but it's also matter of ethical values. And so if an engineer can achieve that in every line that he wrote is writing the possibility to build a better future altogether, that will be really in some way vocational. It could be really inspiring for them to know that they are doing the same things that once during the Renaissance other engineer doing in city like Florence or around the world. So they can build something that is not so only workable but is also beautiful. That could be a beauty producer for the next century. And that could be really interesting for a really practical man like I was as an engineer.
Brad Smith: I think that's well put because I think at the end of the day, no single document will answer every question, especially at the level of detail when it comes to implementation. But it is a guidepost. It is a north star. Or to use the words of Pope Francis when he spoke at the meetings this week, what we're really talking about is creating a culture, a culture that really places artificial intelligence into a central role of serving the common good of all people and protecting our common home. And that sort of connects with the last aspect I wanted to talk to you about.
Father Benanti: One of the remarkable things about the Rome Call in my view in the years now that we've been working on it together is you have put it on a path to become something universal. It took a big step this week with the signatures from Jewish and Islamic leaders, but this isn't the last step. As you said, this is an ongoing journey and I know the next destination on this journey, one that is going to come in several months, will take us to Japan. Tell us a little bit about that and what we can all hope to see come.
Father Benanti: To make gross distinction, the world is Western and Eastern. If we found with the Rome Call during this day the Western agreement on that, we still need East. We still need all the Asian and all the other perspective of life. This is the reason why speaking now as someone that belongs to our religious field, we would like to include also all the Asian religions. We have Japan as the frontier of the Pacific and we are looking to a really symbolic place where the technology shows us that we could become not only the first species that go outside the earth, but we could also become the species that can destroy the earth and all the living being with atomic bomb. And this is the reason why we are looking a really symbolic place in Japan, probably Nagasaki in which we can say strong with a loud voice, "No more. No more."
Father Benanti: Because the power that we have in our hand needs a purpose, needs a direction. And this direction has to be universal because it has to be something that can bring us in the next century as a next level of quality of the human life on the earth. We already probably will be remembered in 10,000 years because we produce some new kind of material that never existed before. And it was the kind of atoms that we produced when the first bomb exploded. Try to be remembered as someone that produced something good. And this is the idea of bringing the Rome Call to Japan, to the other religion. This is this idea of push for universalization of the principle and of the good perspective that are included there. It's a long journey. We are working hard on that. Thanks also to you and all the effort that you are putting on that and also spreading to everyone that is important to take at the core of our mission, what is the human beings and what is the environment?
Brad Smith: And I think that captures something that I have to admit I had would've never thought about when we first started working together on this. On the one hand, it was clear that this was an effort to ensure that technology would serve humanity. And I remember the first meeting I had, you were there as well of course with Pope Francis. And at the end he sort of held by hand and wrist and said, "Don't lose your humanity." I think the Rome Call is actually on a path to do even more than put humanity at the center of technology. It's helping all of us recognize the common bond in every part of humanity. And I think that is a gift that perhaps a new form of technology is just giving us the opportunity to hold a mirror up to ourselves and recognize that the world may be divided, but we all have so much in common at the same time.
Father Benanti: You know, there is a famous philosopher that said that every time we take an action there are unwanted results that go beyond our purpose. And I think that it's really true also in the Rome Call for AI Ethics. Yes, of course, we focus ourself on technology, but what we are [witnessing] is there is a new way that is arising among religions to stay together in a different way, in a peaceful way. And we are seeing also what you just underline. We are seeing that there is something of humanity that goes beyond division, beyond frontier, beyond believing, beyond everything. And this is at the center of the Rome Call. It's not the first topic of our intent when we wrote it, when we join it, but now we have to recognize that it is surfacing on that. And I think that is one of the wonderful gift that technology, innovation, and goodwill of people can bring us to the next century.
Brad Smith: Well, let me just close by saying thank you. You are the engineer who became a monk and who is bringing, in a way that few people can, religion and ethics and humanity to technology and taking technology to a place that will better serve humanity.
Father Benanti: Thank you to you and for all the effort that you're putting on keeping technology human.
Brad Smith: We will keep working together.
Father Benanti: Thank you.
Brad Smith: Thank you.
Brad Smith: You've been listening to Tools and Weapons, with me, Brad Smith. If you enjoyed today's show, please follow us wherever you like to listen. Our executive producers are Carol Ann Browne and Aaron Thiese. This episode of Tools and Weapons was produced by Corina Hernandez and Jordan Rothlein. This podcast is edited and mixed by Jennie Cataldo with production support by Sam Kirkpatrick at Run Studios. Original music by Angular Wave Research. Tools and Weapons is a production of Microsoft made in partnership with Listen.