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Pope Francis is expected to give a speech on artificial intelligence at the G7 summit


Last year, one of the most widely shared images on the internet was a picture of Pope Francis wearing a puffy white coat. The coat looked trendy, like something a pop star or celebrity might wear, but not the pope. The world later learned that the papal puffer was a spoof created with artificial intelligence. Today, Pope Francis is due to give a speech on AI at the annual G7 summit in Italy. To understand why the pope has taken an interest in AI, Christopher White joins me now from Rome. He covers the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter. Hello, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER WHITE: Hi, Rob. Good to be with you.

SCHMITZ: So I want to start there. Why is the pope so interested in artificial intelligence?

WHITE: You know, I think for Pope Francis, simply put, he doesn't want technology to erase humanity. And so when he approaches artificial intelligence, he's here to sort of champion a person-centered approach to technology. But also, he sees it as deeply connected to peacemaking. When you talk to the pope, he often wants to raise issues like the war in Ukraine and Gaza, and he sees AI having the possibility to fuel further wars and the arms trade. And he wants to sort of champion world leaders, and particularly those down in Puglia in Italy today, to embrace a multilateral approach to this.

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, in 2020, the Vatican brought together leaders from IBM, Microsoft to sign what it called the Rome Call for AI Ethics. Can you remind us about what that said?

WHITE: Well, this was a real chance for the Vatican to partner with, you know, top business executives - as you mentioned, at IBM, Microsoft, Cisco - to sort of lay out some broad, foundational approaches to AI. So real emphasis on inclusion and transparency and person-centered approaches to these technologies so that when they go back home to their respective headquarters, when they're approaching, you know, new technologies that, in theory, these principles are what guide them.

And so they had these business executives sign on, and now they've had religious leaders from the Muslim world and the Jewish world sign on as well. I don't think the Vatican has any interest in getting involved in the policy specifics, but I think they see their role as offering some broad principles that can guide the discourse and the development.

SCHMITZ: Got it. So I was going to ask you, I mean, the pope is the head of the Catholic Church. I was wondering, does he have an agenda here or is he coming at this from a more universal perspective?

WHITE: Well, you know, I think most Catholics, you know, take their views on policy questions first and foremost from their politics, not necessarily from their religion. But I do think the pope wants to sort of use his megaphone to put this issue on the radar of, you know, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, as we saw him do in 2015 when he issued a major landmark document on climate change. I think he sees this as another issue that requires global solutions. He sees the world as being deeply interconnected, and so he wants to talk to everyone about these problems.

SCHMITZ: So in addition to AI, what else can we expect from the pope?

WHITE: He's got a busy day today with almost 10 individual bilateral meetings, including with President Biden today. And you can bet that the wars in Ukraine and Gaza are going to top their agenda.

SCHMITZ: That's Christopher White. He's the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. He joins us from Rome. Christopher, thank you.

WHITE: Thank you, Rob. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rob Schmitz
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.