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Why the pope has the ears of G7 leaders on the ethics of AI

<span>Invited by Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, the pope is the first religious leader to attend a G7 summit.</span><span>Photograph: Giuseppe Lami/EPA</span>
Invited by Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, the pope is the first religious leader to attend a G7 summit.Photograph: Giuseppe Lami/EPA

After a gruelling first day discussing how to finance a prolonged war against an authoritarian dictator, G7 leaders in Puglia next turned for advice from someone who insists he is infallible, and for good measure thinks Ukraine should have the courage to wave the white flag.

Normally when an 87-year-old claiming infallibility turns up at your door, the instinct is to give them a cup of tea and quietly ring social services. But when 1.3 billion other people, including your hostess, believe he is indeed infallible, the dynamic somewhat changes.

So Pope Francis, invited by the devout Catholic and Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, was warmly greeted when he reached the summit of mammon, the G7 club of western wealthy countries.


Even if G7 is used to listening to the prophecies of economists, he is the first religious leader ever to attend this event, and to give his prediction of what the future holds. By a curious piece of scheduling, he arrived after meeting 100 world comedians at the Vatican. Not only did he address the G7 collectively, his formidable diplomatic operation had arranged 10 bilaterals – 10 more than those organised by Rishi Sunak.

Related: Did you hear the one about the pope? Francis tells audience of comedians it’s OK to laugh at God

For Joe Biden there must have been a special bonding. Biden, 81, is the US’s second Catholic president, and he, like the pope, is pursued by unkind gossip that he should resign before the miracle of the afterlife catches up with him.

But everything is relative – often cruelly so – and as the pope moved down the steps of his helicopter to lever himself and his walking stick into the adjacent waiting golf cart, it was as if Biden, by comparison, had been given the elixir of youth.

But Pope Francis had not come primarily to preach about Nato foolishly barking at the door of Russia, or indeed on why Israel could show greater restraint in Gaza, positions he has recently taken. He was at the summit to talk about the future, and – given the acute choices the present always requires – world leaders love nothing more than discussing the future.

Indeed the ability to ruminate on an unknown future has often been taken as the true hallmark of wise statesmanship, as opposed to the grubby politician. One year the topic is the population explosion, the next the climate crisis or global pandemics; currently, it is artificial intelligence.

Most self-respecting leaders sprinkle their speeches with foresight about the ethics of AI and how it is a test for global governance. Sunak held the world’s first summit on AI safety leading to the Bletchley Declaration in October 2023. The UN has an AI expert advisory board that issued an interim report in December and, in May 2023 under the Japanese presidency, G7 leaders signed something called somewhat discouragingly the Hiroshima Process. (This is not as incendiary as it suggests. Think Schmidhuber, not Oppenheimer.)

That in turn has led to the Hiroshima Process International Guiding Principles for Organizations Developing Advanced AI Systems. This contains 11 high-level principles, none of which have any legal standing and sometimes lack specificity.

Global governance is now over AI like a rash. The EU, never slow to regulate in the digital field, has passed an act that seeks to regulate AI in the EU to ensure it is “aligned with human rights, democratic integrity, and the rule of law”. Canada is broadly following suit. The UK and the US are being less prescriptive.

So how does the pope fit into this patchwork tapestry? It is to Meloni’s credit that she is attempting to build on Japan’s work rather than set off in an entirely new direction. Indeed she has described AI as “the main challenge we face, anthropologically, economically, productively and socially”.

But she has attached herself to the pope, partly because the pope himself is leaning on the thinking of a Franciscan friar Paolo Benanti – who has in turn become central to her own thinking, turning up as her adviser to meetings with titans such as Bill Gates.

Related: Pope tells G7 leaders AI can be a both terrifying and fascinating tool

Under-shaved, brown-robed and jovial, Benanti is adept at explaining how technology can change the world, “with humans ceding the power of choice to an algorithm that knows us too well. Some people treat AIs like idols, like oracles, like demigods. The risk is that they delegate critical thinking and decisional power to these machines.”

AI is about choices. He points out: “Already a few tens of thousands of years ago, the club could have been a very useful tool or a weapon to destroy others …”

The Italians, not pioneers in the technology, warn that AI prefigures a world in which progress does not optimise human capabilities, but replaces them.

In the past, this replacement mainly concerned physical work, so that people could dedicate themselves to conceptual work. Now it is the intellect itself that risks being replaced. “The world would run enormous risks if we considered these areas as free zones without rules,” Meloni warned.

The friar minted the phrase algor-ethics that Meloni uses, is the author of a light theological exposition of the techno-human condition, and is indefatigable in making the case that every single aspect of our existence is technologically mediated or enforced.

He also runs a sideline as the pope’s spin doctor, explaining: “This pontificate opened with Lampedusa, the issue of migrants, continued with the encyclical Laudato si’ on the environment and climate change, and now addresses artificial intelligence.

“This shows the pope’s sensitivity to frontier issues, the challenges that humanity is facing. Francis reads the signs of the times.”

If he does have the perspicacity, it is little wonder he is in such demand by world leaders so clearly in search of direction.