Where the future begins

Interview with Father Philip Larrey about energy and environment.

by Davide Perillo
22 October 2020
12 min read
by Davide Perillo
22 October 2020
12 min read

“Look, perhaps the Pope is ahead of everyone. He may not be aware of technology in detail, but he certainly has clear that the environment is the problem.  That is where we play for the future”. He’s been very clear Father Philip Larrey, 57 years old, Dean of the Philosophy Department at the Pontifical Lateran University. He hails from Mountain View, California “I was born there when there was only an air force base., now Google has bought it”. But that’s not the only reason why, besides being a Catholic priest, he’s also a big expert in technology, digital and artificial intelligence.

Themes that led him to join the latest editions of the World Economic Forum in Davos, a symposium that every winter brings together directors, intellectuals and politicians at the highest levels and, that drove him to publish Connected World, a series of interesting interviews with some of the leading players in a fast changing world. They range from Eric Schmidt, one of Google’s bosses, to Don Norman, a high-tech design guru, from Bill Shores, mobile phone pioneer, to Anders Sandberg, the minds behind the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford. Besides this, the book covers other topics such as communication, nuclear power and IT security.

Q: Topics that have increasingly evident links with that problem that is so dear to the Pope.

A: The Creation, our common home, as he calls it. He’s right. Taking care of it, for those who follow these issues, is central.

Q: Why?

A: The most controversial aspects of digital technologies relate to society rather than to the environment. And these are problems that have been discussed for quite a while. They crop up, for example, in The Social Dilemma, the new Netflix documentary that shows the dark side of social media, do you know? Dependence on the network, its impact on families. These are visible effects and on a philosophical level, too, their impact is strong. We are now talking about transhumanism, brain implants, the fusion of man and machine. But the environmental factor is also gaining a lot of ground among those who study these things. I see that directors and companies are very sensitive to the subject. There is a whole movement concerned with the relationship between ecology and technology, between green and blue, as Luciano Floridi, the Oxford philosopher calls it, with an expression more and more used. It has also become  an editorial project in La Repubblica.

Q: In your opinion, what are the most controversial points?

A: Some of them were emphasized by Floridi  in the interview he gave you. In my point of view, it’s indicative. Basically, you have to remember that not all that glitters is gold. Artificial intelligence, for example, requires an industrial quantity of electricity and therefore energy sources. Sure, it promises more efficiency, but it absorbs resources too. See the example of Look at DeepMind, Google’s artificial intelligence project, which created an algorithm to optimise consumption at data centres. The use of some technologies does not mean in itself an advantage for the environment, it’s an investment in the future. But we will be dependent on oil for years to come.

I see that directors and companies are very sensitive to the subject. There is a whole movement concerned with the relationship between ecology and technology, between green and blue

Philip Larrey - Pontificia Università Lateranense Philosophy Department

Q: But the World Economic Forum, two years ago, produced an interesting document – “Harnessing Artificial Intelligence for the Earth”. There are many examples of virtuous circles in digital and in sustainability – self-driving cars that optimise mobility and consumption; improving electricity storage and circulation, data analysis in agriculture, to cut down on water and pesticides. All already in place thanks to new technologies.

A: That text is from 2018 and two years is a long time in this sector. But the overall perspective is good. They are significant examples. And there are a lot more. Electric cars, for example, which make almost no pollution. Well, you have to produce electricity and it takes a lot of energy to build the batteries, but the benefits are huge. Then there’s photovoltaics. The sun is there for everyone, and it’s free. The technology that turns it into usable energy is still not cheap, but that’s the long view. A scientist at Bridgestone, the tyre company, was telling me some time ago how they use nanotechnology to capture solar energy in small cells, and produce a lot of it.

Recently I went to Sassuolo, the hub for ceramic tiles in Italy. The director of a large company there told me how now, with artificial intelligence, he can even automate dust cleaning, which is a big problem when you make ceramics. It means he saves energy, water and potentially pollution. Of course, the other side of the coin is that they’ve lost several jobs.

Q: That is not a small matter 

A: True, and also calls for solutions. But the point is, technology isn’t the ultimate solution. It offers tools that we did not have before, it can suggest new and cleverer ways of using resources, but too often, despite having precise instructions and data at hand, we do not follow them. The problem is no longer a lack of information. It’s the lack of a real willingness to address certain issues. As the Pope always reminds us, it’s man who makes decisions. Technology will be useful to the extent that we allow it to be. And I must say that sometimes, when faced with the way certain problems are faced, or not dealt with, one almost wonders whether the world would not be better guided by artificial intelligence.

Q: Really?

A: It’s a paradox, of course. But too often politics is in the opposite side of reasonableness. Today we’ve forgotten about it because there are other things pressing, but a few months ago, with the clash between the US and North Korea, the risk of nuclear it’s back in the news. In cases like this an artificial intelligence system could provide us with useful information. Just set certain parameters – “Try to come up with an international policy that does good for as many people as possible. A nuclear war is not good for humanity, so avoid it.” And here's a good global rationalization: that wouldn't be a bad thing, would it?

Q: Man is missing.

A: Exactly. I was getting to that. On the one hand, artificial intelligence depends on the programs you write, on how you set it up. On the other, it gives you directions which you then have to follow. It can come up with guidelines on combating pollution and climate change, but it’s up to us to put them into practice.

Q: But it’s indisputable that there’s much greater sensitivity to these issues now. A few years ago in Davos these themes would not have been discussed, and with this depth. Doesn’t that mean that new possibilities are opening up in the relationship between blue and green?

A: Yes, but I take it further, perhaps because I’m a philosophy lecturer. I say, what is the human desire that ends up doing damage to the environment? Greed? Lack of attention to how, what we do, affects the world? Inequality of wealth distribution? These are the decisive points. Technology can help, but if there’s no will, it’s useless.

Q: You spoke about the Pope. There’s another very important example of awareness: he is insisting a lot on saving the planet. He talks about “integral ecology”. He reminds us that all problems are connected and cannot be treated separately. What’s your judgment of the emphasis he places on this? Is the Church in your opinion at the forefront or falling behind in these issues?

A: I don’t know about the Church, but the Pope certainly is. The environment is one of his key themes, together with poverty, inequality and immigration. For reasons that have nothing to do with companies, the Pope has identified the biggest risk factor in our society. Many people look at him as a reference point. I’m thinking of Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock, one of the largest global investment funds. In the last two years he has written two letters to his shareholders, which were later looked at by the delegates at Davos. Both letters support the Pope’s writings on the environment and the common good. He said Blackrock will no longer make investments in companies that harm the environment. And he took part with the Pope and Cardinal Turkson in a meeting with oil company directors at the Vatican two years ago. It’s a long journey, to be sure, and things don’t change overnight, but it is a fact that the Pope is spreading greater consciousness. And that’s urgent, because problems travel fast.

Business matters. But first and foremost, the planet must be protected. It’s the only one we have, for now

Philip Larrey - Pontificia Università Lateranense Philosophy Department

Q: In what sense?

A: If you talk to insurance companies, they’ll tell you their main problem now is insuring against natural disasters and damage from climate change. A director of one of the major companies in the sector told me a few days ago that they have to insure the port of Miami. It’s one of the most important ports in America. Billions of dollars’ worth of goods and tens of thousands of tourists pass through it. And do you know what their greatest fear is? Rising sea levels. “If it rises even by three or four inches it’s a disaster,” he told me. Or think about what happens now every year in my California.

Q: The fires?

A: Exactly. This is immense ecological destruction, which doesn’t just end when you put out the flames. The fires are mainly due to climate change. But that’s not the only reason. Another major reason is that the infrastructure belonging to PG&E, the largest power supply company, is obsolete. It can’t hold out anymore. And replacing it costs a pretty penny. So, by avoiding spending, they caused so much damage that the company went bankrupt. Even that’s significant when you think about it. The biggest risk for a company like that is ecological damage, but the best thing you can do is prevent it. If you care about the environment over and above money, you may make better decisions for your business too.

Q: It is symbolic that everything is happening a stone’s throw from Silicon Valley, as if even the very heart of high-tech is at risk if we don't change course.

A: It’s all about vision. As they say “hindsight is 20/20” you see everything clearly. If the directors of that energy company had chosen to upgrade their infrastructure 10 years ago, they would not be bankrupt now. But nobody did that at the time. The only issue was protecting the stakeholders and shareholders. The Pope would call that a case of myopia, and you can’t blame him. Business matters. But first and foremost, the planet must be protected.  It’s the only one we have, for now.

Q: What do you mean, “for now”?

A: Well, there are billionaires like Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk who have also thrown themselves into space travel. Musk wants to colonise the moon and Mars, Bezos has launched his “Blue Origin” project, but it seems to me that they want to conquer space because they aren’t optimistic about the future on Earth. Instead of working to save the Earth, they’re looking for escape routes. Musk is a visionary, goodness sake, a genius. But if I had him in front of me right now, I'd tell him, “Elon, why don’t you help us take care of our planet instead of thinking about how to abandon it?”

Q: I’ll ask you a question that you also ask many of your interviewees. How do you see the relationship between green and blue in 10 years?

A: We will certainly see many changes. And not necessarily all for the better. There are some who are convinced that it’s too late, that the damage has already been done. Others say we still have time to reverse the trend. I am not a pessimist. I hope that we’ll become wiser and that artificial intelligence can help humanity on this front too. But to get there, we must take a decision.