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Holy Writ - the Vatican and Silicon Valley collaborate on applied ethics

George Lawton Profile picture for user George Lawton July 7, 2023
An initiative to spark discussions and practical ethical frameworks that can apply across religious, business, and cultural boundaries.


The Pope rarely gets brought up in conversations about enterprise tech. However, the rapid pace of technology innovation has prompted the Holy See to foster the development of a practical framework for technology ethics. The goal is to spark discussions and practical ethical frameworks that can apply across religious, business, and cultural boundaries. 

As part of this process, the Vatican has collaborated with Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics to form The Institute for Technology, Ethics, and Culture, or ITEC. The first fruit of this effort is the publication of a handbook on 'Ethics in the Age of Disruptive Technologies: An Operational Roadmap.' The Vatican and Markkula hope this will provide enterprises with practical guidance to navigate new ethical issues. 

A practical approach

With new frameworks emerging by the week, you may be wondering why we need another one. However, Markkula has a lot to offer since it has been working with Silicon Valley companies on applying practical ethics since its founding in 1986. Ann Skeet, Senior Director, Leadership Ethics at Markkula, explains:

There's sort of an emerging consensus out there that ethical standards for technology are a good thing and are actually emerging. We've seen a number of companies, and we work alongside companies and have for many years. So, we've been watching this trend of companies setting principles around their design and use of technology. And we've even seen some emergence of consensus about what those principles are, things like accountability and transparency. But we've seen less consensus, actually, on what companies should do, and less understanding of how to actually apply those ethical standards.

The book is written for people inside the company trying to figure out what to do. It provides checklists for executives going through the process of bringing ethical standards inside their company. It provides specific guidance on practical steps executives, engineers, technical writers, and HR can take to build an ethical culture. Skeet says:

It's also unique in the sense that we've tried to write it in the language of business and engineers. And we've done that because we've drawn from this large pool of real-world examples across various sectors, not only in the companies we work with at the Markkula center but also those where we've conducted some field research.

It includes seven guiding principles broken down into forty-six specifying principles for assessing the current state, clarifying a new vision, and then operationalizing these daily. 

DevOps for ethical bugs

One practical concern about ethics is that it might slow growth, eat into profits, or introduce new challenges. The guide advocates a responsible technology management system (RTMS) that supports responsible product & service lifecycle management. This approach is akin to DevOps’s integrated approach to identifying and weeding out software and security bugs earlier in the product development lifecycle when they are cheaper to fix. But in addition to software bugs, it helps identify ethical issues earlier when they are less costly to rectify. 

Father Brendan McGuire, who collaborated on the handbook and is a founding member of ITEC, says:

To apply it from inside the organization, from the very beginning of design all the way to customer consumption, it does not have to slow down the product and does not necessarily have to make a product any less advantageous or powerful if it's designed inside every aspect of it.

Vatican support

Father McGuire retired from the technology industry to become a Catholic priest, but always retained an interest in the power of technology to shape our future. He helped foster collaboration between the Vatican and Silicon Valley when he realized that many Silicon Valley companies see themselves as global rather than local companies. He says:

We figured we needed that convening power of the Vatican to gather these companies together.

The Vatican and Markkula formalized their relationship about five years ago. Father McGuire notes:

The Pope’s vision is there is a sense there is a good here for humanity and the co-creativity of this technology to be wonderful, but there is an urgent matter of responsible use. We have all these technologies, but we need to make sure that it is for the good of humanity and good for everybody, not just a small subset of humanity. And that we can as a humanity can seek this together, beyond religions, and beyond individual companies.

Data is crucial

Dan Cooperman, Markkula Center Advisory Board Chair, came to the center after serving as Senior Vice-President and General Counsel at Apple and Oracle. He says that even then, they needed help with how to implement data governance:

When we first did a project at Oracle, we were trying to develop an electronic contract that we could use, and just trying to find out where we keep our data, what data we collect, and how we use it. This was an enormous challenge. And this is really at the heart of it right now.

Things have only gotten more challenging with the massive proliferation and tangled webs of data, he argues:  

Given the pace of advancement here in just recent years, I think managers understand that there need to be some guiding principles, some overall framework within which the advancement of these technologies can be presented to the market, and in a responsible way. This includes issues like misinformation and false information, issues relating to discrimination, and the concern about how individual citizens are identified or grouped with data and the fairness of that.

Leadership support key

One important takeaway from the research is that a single leader acting within an office of related individuals is required to drive an ethical framework at a company-wide level.  Cooperman notes:

The framework makes very clear that you need to have a single designated leader that leads this project because it is, in fact, something that's so overwhelming that there needs to be that kind of clarity of structure that I found in my own business career.  That's how change happens, and it has to happen with a single-minded vision and then an effective leader who can implement that vision throughout the company.

A virtuous cycle

It’s also important to note that implementing an ethical framework in a practical way is not a one-and-done project. It needs to be considered an ongoing initiative and way of characterizing progress akin to the idea of maturity levels in Capability Maturity Model Integration, which has five levels. The ITEC similarly suggests five stages of development, from leadership discernment at the beginning to ongoing operations and continuous improvement at the top. Enterprises must grow through these stages to develop a sustainable foundation. 

Skeet says that this first book is just a first step of a long and ongoing process of continuous improvement. The center has been working with enterprises for over 35 years to explore various ways of addressing ethical issues in practice. This requires collaboration between enterprises and ethics experts who can spot problems earlier in product development the way a skilled quality assurance lead could help developers steer clear of bugs. Skeet explains: 

It's this virtuous cycle of sharing information about what we know, from our perspective in an Applied Ethics Center, and what they're experiencing in the companies. So, it's our hope, really, that we'll get a lot of feedback about this book. And we'll hear from companies about ways that they're doing things that we should be adding to the second edition or changing things as we go along.

My take

Having been raised Catholic, I was surprised to discover that the Vatican had taken such an active role in technology ethics. But it makes sense, given the Church’s global reach and willingness to collaborate across faith, country, and business boundaries. It’s truly a global institution. 

It’s also interesting the way they are framing this model as an evolution of existing practices like product lifecycle management and DevOps, which is likely to make it easier for innovative companies to apply in a practical way. 

New ethical issues seem to be discovered every day, like zero-day security bugs out there that had been sitting unseen sometimes for decades. None of these problems will be cheap to fix once a product or service is out in production. But the more time we can invest in developing ethical foundations, the easier it will be to address them when they come to the fore. 

It’s easy to portray ethics as a cost center at odds with profit motives. But the sooner that companies can start to really think through the implications of design choices, the easier it will be to head off issues with disgruntled consumers, neighbors, or regulators. 

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