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Keep humanity the focus of tech innovations, says new Vatican-approved ethics guide

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Denver, Colo., Jul 4, 2023 / 09:00 am (CNA).

A new ethics handbook for the tech industry and big business launched with the collaboration of the Vatican’s culture and education body advises “don’t build the future badly.”

The 140-page handbook “Ethics in the Age of Disruptive Technologies: An Operational Roadmap,” says technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and digital surveillance have consequences for all of human society. This means the tech industry and big business can’t ignore human concerns and moral reasoning about their work, their products, and their services.

The handbook is published by the Institute for Technology, Ethics, and Culture (ITEC) at California’s Santa Clara University, a Jesuit institution. It includes an introductory note from Bishop Paul Tighe, the Irish-born secretary of the Dicastery for Culture and Education.

“It may come as a surprise to some to discover the Vatican’s engagement with this project, but it is ultimately the result of meetings — ‘encounters,’ to use one of Pope Francis’ favorite words — between the Vatican and the world of technology,” Tighe wrote in the handbook.

Tighe’s dicastery is the Vatican body tasked with developing human values in a Christian context to advance Christian discipleship.

He said the handbook results from “a desire to promote an inclusive conversation between the technology sector and the broader human community whose future will be shaped in so many ways by decisions made by those who are managing innovation. This is a conversation that must include those of diverse nationalities, of various cultures, and of different faiths and none, so that we learn together how to build a better world for all.”

The handbook is intended for corporate businesses. It offers specific recommendations on technology issues like artificial intelligence, machine learning, encryption, security, data privacy, and digital surveillance. It also provides an operational roadmap to ensure new technologies are adapted following ethical practices and principles.

The ethics handbook is the first publication from the Institute for Technology, Ethics, and Culture, itself a new initiative of Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. The institute itself was developed with support from the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education. ITEC aims to promote deeper thought on how technology impacts humanity by bringing together leaders from business, civil society, academia, government, and religious traditions, Santa Clara University said in a June 28 statement.

“If we build the future badly, we will live in a terrible world,” the ITEC ethics handbook says in its introduction. It notes that many products and services are integrating new technologies that come with ethical risks that need to be mitigated.

The handbook aims to be a reference for various kinds of readers: high-level business executives, corporate legal counsel, technology ethics advocates, human resources executives and managers, and executives and managers who oversee product and service life cycles.

The handbook’s co-authors are Brian Patrick Green, director of Technology Ethics at the Markkula Center; José Roger Flahaux, former technology executive; and Ann Gregg Skeet, senior director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center.

“We are delighted to offer this resource to organizations striving to align their technological advancements with ethical principles,” Green said in a Wednesday statement. He said that organizations can “build trust, foster innovation, and create a positive societal impact” by integrating ethical considerations.

Tighe’s introductory note describes the ethics handbook as the result of “a somewhat unlikely cooperation” between the Markkula Center, technology and management professionals, and the Centre for Digital Culture at the Dicastery for Culture and Education.

The bishop reflects on his meetings with experienced Silicon Valley representatives, including those involved in artificial intelligence and machine learning. He says he has been impressed by “their desire to maintain high ethical standards for themselves and for their industry.” Many technology industry initiatives aim to ensure that technology serves humanity, is “human-centered,” “open,” and is “ethical by design.”

“This desire to maintain ethical standards reflects both an intrinsic commitment to doing good and a realistic aversion to the risk of reputational damage and long-term commercial harm,” Tighe writes.

“What is truly remarkable is the degree of consensus that has emerged in terms of defining the ethical values that should guide research and development in technology,” he adds. Among many different organizations and companies, he has seen common values such as “inclusion, transparency, safety, fairness, privacy, and reliability” that are central both to technology innovation and to organizations’ statements of values.

He says the handbook recognizes the diversity of beliefs and values of people working in the technology sector and “appeals to the basic human ideals and values that can, and have, commanded a general acceptance.”

In Tighe’s view, the ethics handbook comes from a desire to help “highly motivated and well-intentioned executives” embed such shared principles in their company culture and their industry. It aims to identify how to ensure “a consistent and intentional focus on ethics” in companies’ decision-making and operations. It is also a work in progress and will be updated and expanded based on feedback from those who consult and use it.

The handbook provides an overarching framework for ethical thought.

It names as an “anchoring principle” the idea that our actions are “for the common good of humanity and the environment.” It outlines seven guiding principles to help apply this root principle: respect for human dignity and rights; the promotion of human well-being; investment in humanity; the promotion of justice, access, diversity, equity, and inclusion; the recognition that “Earth is for all life”; accountability; and transparency and explicability.

“Ethics is about pursuing the good and avoiding doing wrong. It is about how to live one’s own life and live together with other people in a way that ultimately benefits everyone,” the ITEC handbook says in its conclusion. “Ethics benefits organizations, it benefits businesses, it benefits people, and it benefits the environment. But again, ethics can do nothing without people embodying it in their own lives.”

While businesses can’t make an ethical society on their own, the handbook says, “neither are they free to avoid doing their part.”

Among other handbook contents is an appendix summarizing how Microsoft, IBM, and Google approach artificial intelligence ethics and principles.

The handbook is available through the website of the Institute for Technology, Ethics, and Culture.


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