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

Paolo Benanti advises the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian government on the tricky questions, moral and otherwise, raised by the rapidly advancing technology.
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,” and he talked up the Rome Call, a Vatican, Italian government, Silicon Valley and United Nations effort he helped organize to safeguard a brave new world that has such chatbots in it.

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.”