Fr. Paolo Benanti, T.O.R. address challenges of emerging technologies

The Lucy Family Institute for Data & Society invited Fr. Paolo Benanti, T.O.R. to give a lecture titled “Algorethics: Potentiality and Challenges in the Age of AI” as part of the Soc(AI)ety Seminar Series. In addition to working as a Professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University and serving as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Life, Fr. Benanti is Pope Francis’ advisor on artificial intelligence (AI) and tech ethics.

Before introducing Fr. Benanti, Professor Nitesh Chawla, Director of the Lucy Institute, mentioned the meeting between Pope Francis and Notre Dame leadership, including President Fr. John Jenkins, CSC. “[Pope Francis] talked about three aspects of a university Catholic education … the head, heart, and hands.” Chawla continued, “We can achieve the objective that Pope Francis is asking us to do of using the head, heart, and hands towards the betterment of society” by “engaging on technology, ethics, and AI” through this seminar series.

In his lecture, Fr. Benanti noted that language is “the last frontier of AI, especially with what we know about large language model[s] (LLMs).” He referenced Noam Chomsky’s theory that the unique characteristic of human language is that it is syntactic. According to Fr. Benanti, the syntactic structure of language allows it to “make visible the invisible,” including “the Gospel, the language that makes visible the invisible God.”

Fr. Benanti explored different periods of technological evolution to demonstrate how language, in the printed form “beg[a]n to change our mentality.” He compared two maps created in different time periods to explain how human understanding of neutral space and geometric order in relation to reality was transformed after the printing press.

Moreover, Fr. Benanti compared the measurement of time “before the invention of the mechanical clock” and after to demonstrate how technological development helped shape human measurement of time as a “quality, before and after Christ,” to a “quantity.” The invention of the clock “ma[d]e visible the invisibility of time.” It is evolutions like these that allow humans to have a better understanding of reality, according to Fr. Benanti.

In reference to Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Fr. Benanti asserted that human rationality is split into two systems. System 1, which is used 95% of the time, consists of intuition and instinct, while System 2 consists of rational thinking. Of the dangers of AI, Fr. Benanti warned that “AI could be a System Zero that ignites only System 1” because “the easiness of data given to us from that kind of machine could allow us to live with an autopilot without thinking too much of our choices.”

Fr. Benanti pointed out two different philosophical frameworks: Immanuel Kant’s “idea of moral law as the best thing that human beings can do” and Martin Heidegger’s understanding of “the cybernetic element” as the rise of machines and control systems, which can be used as “a matter of control in society.”

In his rebuttal of Kant, Fr. Benanti noted that when Nazi official Adolf Eichmann was on trial, his defense was “I had to kill them, it was the law.” This is what Fr. Benanti called “the crisis of normativity,” the modern attempt to build a society with a balance of norms and freedom in an age of technologically spurred System Zero derationalization that makes freely judging social norms impossible.

On technology as a means of control, Fr. Benanti gave the example of a young boy using a cellphone, posing the question, “Is it the kid that is controlling the display, or are the notifications of these things … controlling the kids?” Fr. Benanti, alarmingly noted that “with the application of cybernetic to social process[es], we can cancel …  freedom.”

Fr. Benanti concluded, “We cannot remove the machine from society. We do not want to remove the machine from society,” but development of new technologies must take into consideration “the fragile part of the relationship with the machine, which is human beings.

Instead, he proposed “Algorethics,” an “ethical guardrail that can allow the human being to flourish in this new age of language.” It is through technological development within an algorethics framework that “will transform some of the core element of our self understanding.”

As a Catholic University, Notre Dame is taking charge of the deployment of responsible AI by recently joining the Artificial Intelligence Safety Institute Consortium (AISIC), an association of over 200 institutions dedicated to mitigating the societal harms caused by the development of AI.

Jose Rodriguez is a senior from Keenan Hall majoring in computer science with a minor in theology. Jose enjoys creating AI-generated images of Pope Francis with drip and looking at pictures of monkeys online. Feel free to send him your favorite picture at

Photo Credit: Lucy Institute

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