Should we be buying from Amazon rather than working
to keep a place like Nenagh alive?’
Unthinkable: Fr Seán McDonagh is increasingly worried
about the power of big tech
Irish Times interview: Thu, Apr 29, 2021, 05:00
When Columban priest Fr Seán McDonagh was working as a missionary in the Philippines in the 1970s phoning his mother in Ireland was a two-day job. He would have to take a circuitous bus journey from the remote island community where he lived to the nearest city where an international telephone exchange offered hope of a brief, crackly conversation before he’d set off on the return home.
He recalled seeing his first mobile phone in Hong Kong a decade later: “The device looked like a large Bord na Móna turf briquette, and the battery, which was huge, lasted for less than an hour.”
Today email and Zoom allow him to keep in regular contact with friends in south-east Asia – so he is well aware of the benefits technology can bring. But he is also fearful of the costs. “I am 77 on my next birthday and I ask myself will I end up in some care home where I am being taken up out of bed by a robot each morning?”
Japan is investing heavily in robots to replace human carers and, while it might make sense economically, part of the motivation – McDonagh notes – is to avoid becoming dependant on migrant workers who could ultimately gain Japanese citizenship.
Artificial intelligence (AI) not only threatens to displace countless jobs but it also has the capacity to make crucial decisions without accountability, for example, in the area of warfare where “smart weapons” are proliferating. “Who is talking about this at the moment?” McDonagh asks.
The question is directed partly at his own church and partly beyond. Best known for his environmental work over the past 30 years, McDonagh takes a new path with his latest book Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs.
“The Catholic Church often arrives at issues a little breathless and a little late,” he says, noting how Charles Dickens was writing about the human cost of the first industrial revolution at least half a century before the cardinals got their heads around it. The fourth industrial revolution is already well underway and the church needs to act now, he says. “I don’t want 60 years of AI running the show.”
The church does have a track record of voicing caution about scientific progress
Last October, Pope Francis published an encyclical Fratelli Tutti [on fraternity and social friendship] which explored how digital culture was being used to stir up hatred and division. The following month, he devoted his monthly prayer intentions to the issue of robots and AI, asking believers around the world to pray that such technologies “always serve mankind”.
More controversially, the Vatican has teamed up with IBM and Microsoft to develop a joint policy on the ethics of AI. Might this be seen as a bid by the tech companies to neutralise a possible source of criticism? “I would think that,” McDonagh replies.
- Do we really care about right and wrong, or are we just virtue signalling?
- Should we cancel Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche?
- Traditional media and a shared reality
The church does have a track record of voicing caution about scientific progress, and its perspective once carried cross-cultural weight. Even the atheistic Guardian saw fit to place on its front page the day after the first moon landing, on July 20th 1969, an article headlined “Don’t forget earth – Pope”.
To be taken seriously today as a moral authority, McDonagh says, the church must address a few home truths. “Algorithms can be quite racist and misogynistic,” he points out but to speak on the issue with credibility the church has to tackle “its own misogyny”.
But can a religion based on ancient scripture teach us anything about how to handle new technology?
McDonagh responds by highlighting the church’s track record. “Modern Catholic social teaching began with the publication of Rerum Novarum [Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour] by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. The encyclical was a religious response to the first industrial revolution which began in the late 18th century and continued right through the 19th century and caused terrible damage to millions of people.
“Forty years later in 1931, Pope Pius XI published the social encyclical Quadragesimo anno. It discussed the ethical implications of the contemporary social and economic order. It warned against the effects of unrestrained capitalism and socialism and was particularly critical of totalitarian communism. It called for the reconstruction of the social order based on solidarity and subsidiarity.
“The Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965 gave a new emphasis to Catholic social teaching in the document Gaudium et Spes [Joy and Hope], Unfortunately, while the negative impact of many contemporary technologies on the biosphere was evident in [environmentalist] Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the bishops who attended the council, were not sensitive to it. They did not challenge humans to respect other life forms, obey ecological laws and work to establish a more just human society within the limits of the natural world.
“That sensitivity did not appear until the publication of Sollicitudo Rei Socialis [The Social Concern] in 1988 and, especially in Laudato Si’ [on care for our common home] which appeared in 2015…
“Catholic social teaching is constantly evolving… I am convinced that the Catholic Church will also respond to the challenges of the digital age and the fourth industrial revolution.”
He stresses, however, the issue is bigger than his own church, and “I think all religions have a role to play.”
What kind of action should be taken? As well as introducing better regulation and creating properly resourced watchdogs, he recommends putting consumer power to good use.
“I am in a small town, Nenagh, of 5,000 people. The very centre of it is falling apart. Is that what we want in 20 years – for businesses to disappear? I do think we should be asking whether should we be buying from Amazon rather than working with our neighbours to keep a place like Nenagh alive.”
“Universal basic income would be very useful for a place like Nenagh,” he adds. The Collison brothers who grew up in neighbouring Dromineer are multi-billionaires thanks to the success of their digital payments group Stripe, McDonagh observes, but the average 30-something from the locality has very different economic prospects.
There is a shortage of jobs but “there is not a shortage of work”, and a basic income “allows you to do decent work” such as protecting the rivers and oceans from destruction, he says. An overriding concern is the growing chasm in wealth and power being created today “and to avoid that you need well constructed regulations and breaking up monopolies”.
Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs by Sean McDonagh is published by Messenger
Ask a sage:
Can the robots be trusted?
Pope Francis replies: “If so-called technological progress were to become an enemy of the common good this would lead to an unfortunate regression, to a form of barbarism dictated by the law of the strongest.”