The Friar Who Became the Vatican’s Go-To Guy on A.I.

The Friar Who Became the Vatican’s Go-To Guy on A.I.

Before dawn, Paolo Benanti climbed to the bell tower of his 16th-century monastery, admired the sunrise over the ruins of the Roman forum and reflected on a world in flux.

“It was a wonderful meditation on what is going on inside,” he said, stepping onto the street in his friar robe. “And outside too.”

There is a lot is going on for Father Benanti, who, as both the Vatican’s and the Italian government’s go-to artificial intelligence ethicist, spends his days thinking about the Holy Ghost and the ghosts in the machines.

In recent weeks, the ethics professor, ordained priest and self-proclaimed geek has joined Bill Gates at a meeting with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, presided over a commission seeking to save Italian media from ChatGPT bylines and general A.I. oblivion, and met with Vatican officials to further Pope Francis’s aim of protecting the vulnerable from the coming technological storm.

At a conference organized by the ancient Knights of Malta order, he told a crowd of ambassadors that “global governance is needed, otherwise the risk is social collapse.” He also talked up the Rome Call, a Vatican, Italian government, Silicon Valley and U.N. effort he helped organize.

The author of many books (“Homo Faber: The Techno-Human Condition”) and a fixture on international A.I. panels, Father Benanti, 50, is a professor at the Gregorian, the Harvard of Rome’s pontifical universities, where he teaches moral theology, ethics and a course called “The Fall of Babel: The Challenges of Digital, Social Networks and Artificial Intelligence.”

For a church and a country looking to harness, and survive, the coming A.I. revolution, his job is to provide advice from an ethical and spiritual perspective. He shares his insights with Pope Francis, who in his annual World Day of Peace message on Jan. 1 called for a global treaty to ensure the ethical development and use of AI to prevent a world devoid of human mercy, where inscrutable algorithms decide who is granted asylum, who gets a mortgage, or who, on the battlefield, lives or dies.

Those concerns reflected those of Father Benanti, who does not believe in the industry’s ability to self-regulate and thinks some rules of the road are required in a world where deep fakes and disinformation can erode democracy.

He is concerned that masters of the A.I. universes are developing systems that will expand chasms of inequality. He fears the transition to A.I. will be so abrupt that entire professional fields will be left doing menial jobs, or nothing, stripping people of dignity and unleashing floods of “despair.” This, he said, raises enormous questions about redistributing wealth in an A.I. dominant universe.

But he also sees the potential of A.I.

For Italy, with one of the world’s most aged and shrinking populations, Father Benanti is thinking hard about how A.I. can keep productivity afloat. And all the time he applies his perspective about what it means to be alive, and to be human, when machines seem more alive and human. “This is a spiritual question,” he said.

After his morning meditation, Father Benanti walked, with the bottom of his bluejeans peeking out under his black robes, to work. He passed the second-century Trajan’s column and carefully stepped into one of Rome’s busiest streets at the crosswalk.

“This is the worst city for self-driving cars,” he said. “It’s too complicated. Maybe in Arizona.”

His office at the Gregorian is decorated with framed prints of his own street photography — images of down-and-out Romans dragging on cigarettes, a bored couple preferring their cellphones to their baby — and pictures of him and Pope Francis shaking hands. His religious vocation, he explained, came after his scientific one.

Born in Rome, his father worked as a mechanical engineer and his mother taught science in high school. Growing up, he loved “The Lord of the Rings” and Dungeons and Dragons but wasn’t a shut-in with games, as he was also a Boy Scout who collected photography, navigation and cooking badges.

When his troupe of 12-year-olds visited Rome to do charity, he met Msgr. Vincenzo Paglia, who was then a parish priest, but who, like him, would go on to work for the Italian government — as a member of the country’s commission on aging — and the Vatican. Now Cardinal Paglia is Father Benanti’s superior at the church’s Pontifical Academy For Life, which is charged with grappling with how to promote the church’s ethic on life amid bioethical and technological upheavals.

Around the time Father Benanti first met Monsignor Paglia, an uncle gave him a Texas Instruments home computer for Christmas. He sought to re-engineer it to play video games. “It never worked,” he said.

He attended a high school that stressed the classics — to prove his antiquity credibility, he burst out, while walking to work, with the opening of the Odyssey in ancient Greek — and a philosophy teacher thought he had a future pondering the meaning of things. But the workings of things exerted a greater attraction, and he pursued an engineering degree at Sapienza University in Rome. It wasn’t enough.

“I started to feel that something was missing,” he said, explaining that his advancement as an engineering student erased the mystique machines held for him. “I simply broke the magic.”

In 1999 his then-girlfriend thought he needed more God in his life. They went to a Franciscan church in Massa Martana in Umbria, where her plan worked too well because he then realized he needed a sacred space where he could “not stop questioning life.”

By the end of the year he had ditched his girlfriend and joined the Franciscan order, to the consternation of his parents, who asked if he was overcompensating for a bad breakup.

He left Rome to study in Assisi, the home of St. Francis, and over the next decade, took his final vows as a friar, was ordained as a priest and defended his dissertation on human enhancement and cyborgs. He got his job at the Gregorian, and eventually as the Vatican’s IT ethics guy.

“He is convened by many institutions,” said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who used to run the Vatican’s culture department, where Father Benanti was a scientific adviser.

In 2017, Cardinal Ravasi organized an event at the Italian embassy to the Holy See where Father Benanti gave a talk on the ethics of A.I. Microsoft officials in attendance were impressed and asked to stay in touch. That same year, the Italian government asked him to contribute to A.I. policy documents and the next year he successfully applied to sit on its commission for developing a national A.I. strategy.

Then in 2018, he reconnected with now Cardinal Paglia, a favorite of Francis, and told him “look, something big is moving.” Soon after, Father Benanti’s contacts at Microsoft asked him to help arrange a meeting between Francis and Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith.

Father Benanti, as part of the Vatican delegation, translated technical terms during the 2019 meeting. Francis, he said, didn’t at first realize what Microsoft really did, but liked that Mr. Smith took out of his pocket one of the pope’s speeches on social media and showed the pontiff the concerns the business executive had highlighted and shared.

Francis — who Father Benanti said has become more literate on A.I., especially after an image of the pope sporting an A.I. designed white puffer coat went viral — then became more animated. The pope liked when the discussion was less about the technology, Father Benanti said, and more on “what he can do” to protect the vulnerable.

Last month, Father Benanti, who said he receives no payment from Microsoft, participated in a meeting between Mr. Gates, the company’s co-founder, and Ms. Meloni, who is worried about A.I.’s impact on the work force. “She has to run a country,” he said.

She has now appointed Father Benanti to replace the leader of the A.I. commission on Italian media with whom she was displeased.

“Obedience to authority is one of the vows,” Father Benanti said as he fiddled with the knots on his robe’s corded belt signifying his Franciscan order’s promise of obedience, poverty and chastity.

That commission is studying ways to protect Italy’s writers. Father Benanti believes that A.I. companies should be held liable for using copyrighted sources to train their chatbots, though he worries it is hard to prove because the companies are “black boxes.”

But that mystery has also, for Father Benanti, once again imbued the technology with magic, even if it is the dark kind. In that way, it wasn’t so new, he said, arguing that as ancient Roman augers turned to the flight of birds for direction, A.I., with its enormous grasp of our physical, emotional and preferential data, could be the new oracles, determining decisions, and replacing God with false idols.

“It’s something old that probably we think that we left behind,” the friar said, “but that is coming back.”