Vatican’s focus on moral and ethical impact of new technologies “a challenge to do better,” scientists say

Author: Jessica Sieff

ND Experts

Tim Weninger

Tim Weninger

Computer Science and Engineering

Staying connected

On Thursday (Dec. 9) the Vatican called on researchers and experts to discuss how new technologies could impact human development and peace in a post-pandemic world.

A conference, “Promoting Integral Human Development and Peace in the Digital Age: New technologies in the post-COVID world,” was centered on crucial questions about how technologies could have positive effects on issues such as food security, health care, fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, dignified labor, peace, security and promotion of a communal economy.

During the conference, Tim Weninger, the Frank M. Friemann Collegiate Associate Professor of Engineering at the University of Notre Dame, spoke on how the internet has become the primary means of public communication. Weninger was in Rome representing a team of researchers specializing in social media analysis focused on imagery, how the sharing of memes, GIFs and videos can affect human behavior, and the potential detrimental effects on democracy, peacebuilding and prosperity.

“Culture and how we communicate is defined by the imagery and the language that we use,” said Weninger. “We’re developing tools and technologies to understand how people manipulate imagery and how that imagery is used to evoke emotions and change perceptions that can result in unfortunate behavior — like radicalization or gun violence. These images and videos become part of the fabric of America.”

Weninger is part of a unique collaboration of experts in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering with experts in the Keough School of Global Affairs and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies using artificial intelligence to identify and track manipulative, false and dehumanizing messages on high-stakes issues in political discourse and develop a better understanding of the new dynamics of human communication.

The team includes Walter Scheirer, the Dennis O. Doughty Collegiate Associate Professor in Computer Science and Engineering; Ernesto Verdeja, associate professor of political science and peace studies; Michael Yankoski, postdoctoral research associate in Notre Dame’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering; and Kristina Hook, assistant professor at Kennesaw State University.

Together, the group is developing technology designed to flag near-real-time social media trends of concern to empower policymakers, human rights organizations and journalists and help prevent political instability and human rights violations.

“The big technological factor here is that no human being, no human team can possibly look at all the data,” said Yankoski. “We need artificial intelligence to help parse and make sense of a chaotic torrent of data. Notre Dame is distinctly positioned to take on this work because of the unique combination of expertise within the Kroc Institute alongside experts in computer science and engineering in areas such as computer vision, network analysis and social media analysis. The combination really is rather remarkable.”

Looking back over the last 15 years, Weninger said much of human communication now occurs online. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent quarantines and lockdowns have only intensified the use of social media and video as a means to communicate. Research in the field has focused on the use on hashtags, likes and tweets — but images have taken center stage.

“Everything now is imagery,” Weninger said. “Imagery is much more emotionally charged and evocative and it gets reactions.”

The prevalence of influence campaigns, how quickly they spread and how they use imagery to change opinions and drive action are things that are still being learned by the average social media user, Yankoski said. “I think as people and as citizens we are generally grappling with how social media affects how we think, behave and act. How deep are the tentacles of social media in our societal and psychological frameworks? There are some terrifying indicators. Many people know that their buttons are being pushed when they use social media, but I don’t know if most people understand how expansive yet subtle these influences can be.”

The conference was organized by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and the Vatican COVID-19 Commission with support from the Pontifical Council for Culture and in collaboration with Diplo Foundation, Torino World Affairs Institute, the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America and Pax Christi International. Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development; Francesca Di Giovanni, undersecretary for multilateral affairs in the Vatican Secretariat of State; and Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, opened the conference.

“It’s really encouraging to see the Vatican doing this in such a proactive way, utilizing their convening power while many of these technologies are still very young,” said Yankoski. “In terms of the growth curve and the trajectory that’s being set, as we start thinking about things like the metaverse, what the next 50 years of human communication are going to be like, etc. — there is so much that needs to be done. The Vatican is one of the few places in the world capable of convening these conversations and helping create the space necessary for the pursuit of ethical trajectories in technological development. It’s encouraging to see them using that unique convening power to bring experts together to help accomplish that.”

That the Vatican aims to set an agenda and marshal brain power in this space is a call to action, Weninger said.

“Hopefully it motivates others to start thinking about these problems at a deeper, more human level rather than a surface or strictly technological level,” he added. “It’s a challenge to computing and AI in general to do better.”