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New Handbook Highlights Ways to Develop Tech Ethically

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In a world where technology, such as artificial intelligence, is advancing at a rapid pace, what guidance do technology developers have in making the best ethically sound decisions for consumers? 

A new handbook, titled “Ethics in the Age of Disruptive Technologies: An Operational Roadmap,” promises to give guidance on such issues as the ethical use of AI chatbots like ChatGPT.

The handbook, released June 28, is the first product of the Institute for Technology, Ethics and Culture, or ITEC, the result of a collaboration between Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and the Vatican’s Center for Digital Culture.

The handbook has been in the works for a few years, but the authors said they saw a need to work with a new sense of urgency with the recent escalation of AI usage, following security threats and privacy concerns after the recent release of ChatGPT.     

Enter Father Brendan McGuire.

McGuire worked in the tech industry, serving as executive director of the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association in the early 1990s, before entering the priesthood about 23 years ago. 

McGuire said that over the years, he’s continued to meet with friends from the tech world, many of whom are now leaders in the industry. But, about 10 years ago, their discussions started to get more serious, he said.

“They said, ‘What is coming over the hill with AI, it’s amazing, it’s unbelievable. But it’s also frightening if we go down the wrong valley,'” McGuire said.

“There’s no mechanism to make decisions,” McGuire said, quoting his former colleagues. He then contacted Kirk Hanson, who was then head of the Markkula Center, as well as a local bishop.

“The three of us got together and brainstormed, ‘What could we do?'” McGuire said. “We knew that each of these companies are global companies, so, therefore, they wouldn’t really respect a pastor or a local bishop. I said, if we could get somebody from the Vatican to pay attention, then we could make some traction.”

For McGuire, a Catholic priest, getting guidance from Pope Francis and the Vatican — with its diplomatic, cultural, and spiritual influence — was a natural step. He said he was connected with Bishop Paul Tighe, who was serving as the secretary of the Dicastery for Culture and Education at the Vatican, a department that works for the development of people’s human values.

McGuire said Tighe was asked by Pope Francis to look into further addressing digital and tech ethical issues.

After a few years of informal collaborations, the Markkula Center and the Vatican officially created the ITEC initiative in 2019. 

“We’re co-creators with God when we make these technologies,” he said, recognizing that technology can be used for good or bad purposes.  

The Vatican held a conference in 2019 in Rome called “The Common Good in the Digital Age.” McGuire said about 270 people attended, including Silicon Valley CEOs and experts in robotics, cyberwarfare and security. 

After gathering research by talking with tech leaders, the ITEC team decided to create a practical handbook to help companies think about and question at every level — from inception to creation to implementation — how technology can be used in an ethically positive way.

“Get the people who are designing it. Get the people who are writing code, get the people who are implementing it and not wait for some regulator to say, ‘You can’t do that,'” McGuire said.

These guidelines aren’t just for Catholics, he said. 

One of the handbook’s co-authors, Ann Skeet, senior director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center, said the handbook is very straightforward and written in a manner business leaders are familiar with. 

“We’ve tried to write in the language of business and engineers so that it’s familiar to them,” Skeet said. “When they pick it up and they go through the five stages, and they see all the checklists and the resources, they actually recognize some of them. … We’ve done our best to make it as usable and practical as possible and as comprehensive as possible.”

“What’s important about this book is it puts materials right in the hands of executives inside the companies so that they can move a little bit past this moment of ‘analysis paralysis’ that we’re in while people are waiting to see what the regulatory environment is going to be like and how that unfolds.” 

In June, the European Parliament passed a draft law called the AI Act, which would restrict uses of facial recognition software and require AI creators to disclose more about the data used to create their programs. 

In the United States, policy ideas have been released by the White House that suggest rules for testing AI systems and protecting privacy rights.

“AI and ChatGPT are the hot topic right now,” Skeet said. “Every decade or so we see a technology come along, whether it’s the internet, social media, the cellphone, that’s somewhat of a game-changer and has its own inherent risks, so you can really apply this work to any technology.”

This handbook comes as leaders in AI are calling for help. In May, Sam Altman of OpenAI stated the need for a new agency to help regulate the powerful systems, and Microsoft President Brad Smith said government needs to “move faster” as AI progresses. 

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has also called for an “AI Pact” of voluntary behavioral standards while awaiting new legislation. 

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