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Why G7 leaders are turning to a special guest — Pope Francis — for advice on AI

Pope Francis leaves evening prayers in the Vatican Gardens on June 7. The pope will meet this week with G7 leaders to talk about the ethics of artificial intelligence.
Alessandra Tarantino/POOL
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AFP via Getty Images
Pope Francis leaves evening prayers in the Vatican Gardens on June 7. The pope will meet this week with G7 leaders to talk about the ethics of artificial intelligence.

BARI, Italy — When leaders of the world's leading industrialized nations meet in Italy this week, they'll be joined by a unique guest to talk about the risks posed by artificial intelligence: Pope Francis.

This is the first G7 summit to feature a pope as an invited participant. But it's not the first time that Pope Francis has weighed in on this emerging technology and how he believes it should be developed for the good of humanity.

"Right now, we have lots of ability to use artificial intelligence for bad purposes, but how can we ultimately direct it toward something which is actually beneficial to human beings, something that brings us together?" said Brian Green, director of technology ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

Why is the pope speaking about artificial intelligence?

Pope Francis himself has been at the receiving end of AI misinformation. Last year, a picture of the pope wearing a large white puffer coat went viral. The image was generated by AI, and it prompted conversations on deepfakes and the spread of disinformation through AI technology.

 AI-generated image: a fake image of Pope Francis wearing a white puffer jacket.
Pablo Xavier; annotation by NPR /
AI-generated image: a fake image of Pope Francis wearing a white puffer jacket.

In his annual message on New Year's Day this year, the pope focused on how AI can be used for peace.

His work on the issue goes back several years, when the Vatican and tech companies like Microsoft started working together to create a set of principles known as the Rome Call for AI Ethics, published in 2020. Companies and governments that sign on to the call have agreed to voluntary commitments aimed at promoting transparency and accountability in AI development.

"The Italian government has been seeking to elevate the messaging behind the Rome Call for AI Ethics and also secure new signatories," said Gregory Allen, the director of the Wadhwani Center for AI and Advanced Technologies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

What the G7 has said so far about AI

G7 leaders have been discussing artificial intelligence and AI ethics for years now. Last year, when Japan hosted the summit, G7 nations agreed to some international principles on AI called the Hiroshima framework.

Neither that framework nor the Rome Call are legally binding documents, but they do provide a pathway for accountability and future laws, Allen said.

"A lot of that [Hiroshima] language is now reflected in the text of the European Union AI Act, which is a compulsory piece of legislation. And in the United States, similar ideas are showing up in things like the White House voluntary commitments on AI that the White House negotiated with several companies," he said.

Allen said AI has been addressed at G7 ministerial meetings in the last several months, including how AI will impact labor and economies. And he expects G7 leaders to focus on AI's impact on disinformation, especially because so many elections are taking place around the world this year.

The pope brings a broader focus to the AI discussion

Pope Francis is expected to focus on ethics in his remarks at the G7. Santa Clara University's Green, who was involved in an AI report that the Vatican released in 2023, said he thinks the pope may mention ways that AI could be used to help poor people and protect the environment.

The pope will bring a different perspective on the technology than a political leader would, Green said.

"As a religious leader, the only thing he really has is his moral authority, which means that he can't really come with a big political agenda to something like this. He can't come with a huge economic agenda, but he can come with a moral agenda," Green said.

"There is a chance here for ethics and politics to work together to create a better world, specifically with this very powerful technology which is going to be transforming the future."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.