The official online launch of Fr. Sean McDonagh’s new book, ‘Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs’ attracted over 150 people on 4th March. Hosted by Messenger Publications, the guest speakers were Dr. Lorna Gold and Professor John Sweeney. Dr. Gold is a Director at FaithInvest, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Global Catholic Climate Movement and a member of the Vatican’s Covid-19 Commission Economics Taskforce. Professor Sweeney works in Journalism and at Maynooth University’s Geography Department and has been involved with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Dr. Gold said she realised after reading the book that, “Artificial Intelligence is not science fiction anymore and it is already influencing every part of our lives.” She felt we are a long way down this road and have already given a lot of power to Artificial Intelligence. Sean was congratulated for a book which is, “timely and necessary reading for us all.” Dr. Gold applauded links to social justice, the ecology movement and ‘Laudato Si’ in particular, where Pope Francis is cautious about the ‘technocratic paradigm’. She said Sean addresses a key implication of the technocratic paradigm – implications for work. Robots are already being used in care homes, to patrol at night, and for 3D printers, and autonomous vehicles. Perhaps the most sinister is the use of drones in remote warfare.
Dr. Gold felt the book is very accessible and should be widely read for anyone interested in the rising power of a few unaccountable corporations. There is a “relentless rise of Artificial Intelligence and all kinds of robots”. She was sympathetic to Sean’s recommendation to pull the brakes and not consider these innovations as unstoppable. Also, to his calls for more work to be available for people needing jobs, a Universal Basic Income, and for large corporations to comply with tax justice.
In his talk, Professor Sweeney pointed out that the topic of this book is a big departure for Sean, better known for his work on Ecology and Creation Theology, but he “prophesies the future” with this topic, as he has with others, and it is a wake-up call. Fifteen million jobs in the UK will be lost through automation and robots. Professor Sweeney felt better informed after reading the book about how the big tech companies record our data and our faces are increasingly on record with the rise of facial recognition. He asked, how often do we click on permissions without reading? He worried about the reduction in human contact, and was surprised that Alexa, the virtual assistant, is commonly used for providing bedtime stories to children. He was interested in Sean highlighting that developing countries are losing their labour advantage.
Sean says we cannot stumble into the future with these powerful technologies in an ethics-free environment. He wants corporate responsibility enforced, and labour unions to be encouraged. Catholic Social Teaching views work as central to an individual’s self-worth. There should be more valuing of human interaction and human rights. Professor Sweeney felt the book alerted him to pay more attention to where we are going with technology, that the same tools that we use to connect, protect and support us can also be put to use in ways that have a huge negative impact on our privacy, our freedom and our life choices. Our digital future is fast approaching with little regulation and few institutional policies and protections. Respect for human rights must be at the heart of these new technologies.
Concluding the event, Sean McDonagh, a Columban priest based in Ireland, compared the lack of awareness about robots to the lack of awareness about the environment three decades ago when he wrote his first book, ‘To Care for the Earth’. It was difficult then to find a publisher and he thanked Fr. Enda McDonagh, who died recently, for playing a role in finding that first publisher. “We are now facing a similar crisis” he suggested, “and these companies are so powerful and monopolies should not be allowed to take over.” He felt there “needs to be political action to stop three or four companies determining our future.”
Sean felt religion has a lot to offer in the area of ethics and would love to see a Vatican document on these new technologies. He advised parents and teachers to take the changes seriously. New communications offer valuable technologies but we need to watch them. “Society should be in charge, not a few tech companies” he concluded.
The meeting was beautifully topped and tailed with music by Sean’s nieces, Ailbhe and Orla McDonagh.