Silicon Valley goes to the Vatican to talk tech ethics

VATICAN CITY: The Vatican brought together Silicon Valley heavyweights, Nobel laureates and cyber experts on Thursday to discuss the ethical use of digital technology, in a meeting officials said could provide material for a possible papal document on artificial intelligence.

The three-day conference, which officials said was the first of its kind, is being attended by executives from companies such as Facebook, Mozilla, and Western Digital, Catholic ethicists, government regulators and investment bankers.

“The technology industry … has had the luxury to think that whatever product it built was the common good. That was the shared assumption for quite some time,” said Mitchell Baker, executive chairwoman of Mozilla in Mountain View, California.

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“The defense was that liberty or human expression was embodied in the technology coming out of Silicon Valley and was undisputedly good,” she said.

The gathering is taking place amid the rise of cyber espionage, online hate speech and misuse of private data, and signs the industry is struggling to respond.

The conference, whose opening session was open to the media before it went behind closed doors, is the latest example of the Vatican trying to stay ahead of the curve on technology and social issues in order to influence the movers and shakers of the future, regardless of their religion.

Vatican officials said it could provide material for a possible papal encyclical, or papal letter to Church members, on artificial intelligence, much as meetings with scientists helped shape his landmark 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si” on the protection of the environment and global warming.

The conference will discuss topics with tech jargon not commonly heard inside the Vatican such as algorithms and blockchain.

Pope Francis is due to address the conference on Friday.

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Gavin Corn, associate general counsel and director of the cyber security law team at Facebook, described how it took down 1.5 million copies in 24 hours of the live streaming by the gunman who killed 51 people in New Zealand mosques last April.

“Despite all these efforts the video did go viral,” he said, saying he was attending in a personal capacity.

He said it was important for tech companies to invest in teams of people to focus on the possible unethical use of products early on in their development.

“Lot’s of people working in the area of AI (artificial intelligence) are determined that this should be developed ethically,” said Bishop Paul Tighe, secretary of the Vatican’s Council for Culture. “We want it to be ‘AI for good’,” he said.

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