When Marquette University professor Shion Guha began planning a class last fall that focused on artificial intelligence and ethics, he assumed he would attract just enough students for a small, intimate seminar.
Instead, students packed the classroom to capacity, forcing Guha to create a waiting list.
“I actually did not expect this type of a response from the students,” Guha, director of the data science graduate program at the Catholic college, said.
Aspiring data scientists, it turns out, really care about ethics.
And they aren’t the only ones.
The Marquette students are part of a growing movement of tech sector professionals, religious leaders and Silicon Valley workers wrestling with profound questions about whether future technologies will be used for good or evil.
Guha says his students wanted to learn how to apply what they learned in ethics classes — a required part of Marquette’s undergraduate curriculum — to their computer science and data science degrees. A discussion of ethics is a Catholic approach to education, and Guha says the class utilizes the church’s teaching about ethics.
“The Catholic Church has actually been instrumental in developing some of the Western canon of what is ethics research,” he said.
Meanwhile, Catholic leaders appear increasingly invested in updating that canon.
In February, officials at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life and tech giant Microsoft announced plans to collaborate on a $6,900 international prize to honor a doctoral student who defends a dissertation that focuses on the intersection of ethics and artificial intelligence.
Microsoft President Brad Smith discussed the initiative during a private meeting with Pope Francis and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia that same month. According to Pontifical Academy for Life Media Manager Fabrizio Mastrofini, the trio “agreed on the importance of educating the younger generations on a responsible use of technologies.”
Mastrofini also noted that the partnership emerged after Pope Francis asked the academy to study the topic of ethics and AI.
“The technologies are advancing but they are not neutral,” he told Religion News Service via email. “The Church, expert in humanity, can show the way for a development that makes the world more human and fair.”
Microsoft officials declined to comment on the meeting.
The conversation between the Pope and Smith is one of several recent attempts by religious groups to wade into Silicon Valley’s ongoing debate over the ethics of artificial intelligence.
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Source: Religion News Service