Pope Francis Blasts Big Tech for Public Data Mining

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ROME — Pope Francis had sharp words for the masters of the universe Friday, noting that “a select few know everything about us while we know nothing about them.”

This “asymmetry” of knowledge produced by data mining, storage, and exploitation “dulls critical thought and the conscious exercise of freedom,” the pope declared in a message to participants in a workshop on artificial intelligence organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life in the Vatican.

“On the socio-economic level, users are often reduced to ‘consumers,’ prey to private interests concentrated in the hands of a few,” the pontiff lamented. “From digital traces scattered on the internet, algorithms now extract data that enable mental and relational habits to be controlled, for commercial or political ends, frequently without our knowledge.”

As a result of this concentration of information in the hands of a few, other inequalities “expand enormously,” Francis continued, as “knowledge and wealth accumulate in a few hands with grave risks for democratic societies.”

The pope’s message was read aloud to participants in the workshop titled, “The ‘Good’ Algorithm? Artificial Intelligence: Ethics, Law, Health,” which included major figures from the digital world. Among the 450 persons present for the workshop were Microsoft president Brad Smith, IBM vice-president John Kelly III, European Parliament president David Sassoli, and FAO director Qu Dongyu.

In 2015, the pope said that parents should not allow their children to have computers in their bedrooms in order to protect them from both the “filth” of pornography and over-dependence on their electronic gadgets.

“It makes you a slave to the computer,” the pope said. “It’s odd, in many families, the fathers and mothers tell me: We’re at the table with the children, and they are with their mobile phones in another world.”

Attachment to technology such as the Internet and social media “takes us away from ordinary life, family life, social life, and even from sports, from the arts,” he said.

Several days earlier, the pope had told young people in Sarajevo, if you become “attached to the computer, and become a slave to the computer, you lose your freedom.”

This past Wednesday, Francis kicked off the holy season of lent by urging Christians to beware of the hostile environment and “subliminal messages” often found on the internet.

“We live in an atmosphere polluted by too much verbal violence, too many offensive and harmful words, which are amplified by the internet,” he said. “Today, people insult each other as if they were saying ‘Good Day.’”

“We are inundated with empty words, publicity, subliminal messages,” he continued. “We have become accustomed to hearing everything about everyone and we risk slipping into a worldliness that atrophies our hearts.”

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