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Dominicans, developers discerning virtues of new tech

August 17, 2017
Christina Gray
Catholic San Francisco

Can the Catholic Church help leaders in the tech community create new “disruptive technologies” that are both financially successful and committed to the human person and the common good?

The Dominican Order, also known as the Order of Preachers, believes it can.

14 Salobir MUG“What happens when you put virtuous behavior and ethical design at the core of your business model?” said Dominican Father Eric Salobir founder of an international Dominican innovation and research network called OPTIC (Order of Preachers for Technology, Information and Communication) dedicated to ethical issue of disruptive technologies. “You might get less money immediately, but you build a much stronger, more sustainable and valuable business.”

A “disruptive technology” is an emerging technology that displaces an established one, creating dramatic changes in society. Examples include the mobile phone, the Internet and the technology that facilitates secure online economic transactions.

The OPTIC network initiates an interdisciplinary dialogue between leaders of the business and technology sector and Christian scholars who strive to think about the human person. Together they discuss and discern the advantages and pitfalls of disruptive technologies against the moral framework of Catholic social teaching.

Father Salobir, the Vatican’s General Promoter of the Order of Preachers for Social Communications, launched OPTIC in Rome in 2012. New networks have been established since then in Switzerland, France, Canada, Mexico and a new network is in development in the San Francisco Bay Area. All are rooted in the age-old tradition of dialogue between science and wisdom.

OPTIC believes disruptive technologies have the potential to greatly improve human living conditions in many areas, but groundbreaking innovations are often developed in high-performing private laboratories without reference to the humanities. OPTIC facilitates that connection.

“What we have seen is that the tech community is pretty willing to build something with us,” Father Salobir told Catholic San Francisco on July 13 during a visit to the Dominican School of Theology and Philosophy in Berkeley, where OPTIC hosted a panel discussion on artificial intelligence with speakers from Hewlett-Packard and McKinsey Global Institute.

Part of that receptivity may come from the reality of exploring ideas in the opportunistic, fast-moving tech world that Father Salobir called “a kind of new Wild West.”

“They know they need some guidelines and a framework,” he said. “They don’t want us to give them the guidelines, but they are receptive to building them with us in order to open new doors.”

Father Salobir said he has not found the tech community to be as materialistic and money-driven as it is accused. Visionary leaders, in particular, have a broad view of the world and are solution-oriented, he said.

“The question then is, are those visions aligned with a real respect for the human being?” Father Salobir asked.

“Trashy” implementation of even a very good idea can ruin a business, said Father Salobir, who as a textbook example used a “flourishing” San Francisco-based ride-hailing service he declined to identify but which is easily recognized as Uber.

Uber stock plunged in June after CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick was forced out by investors amidst allegations of a cutthroat workplace culture, revelations of sexual harassment, discrimination and questionable business tactics.

Brian Patrick Green, assistant director of the campus ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University and also a lecturer in engineering ethics in the Graduate School of Engineering, is working with Father Salobir to expand and coordinate the Bay Area OPTIC network. He believes OPTIC is an “absolutely crucial effort by the church to engage contemporary technology.”

“The church is not technophobic and has always understood that technology is judged by morality,” he said. “Technology makes us more efficient at the courses of action that we choose, good or evil, and we should want to be efficient at doing good and inefficient at doing evil. If we are instead efficient at evil and inefficient at good we will live in a terrible world.”

Father Salobir said that he has noticed that at least two things happen when business leaders connect with the church on the topic of technology through the OPTIC network.

“First, it changes something in their minds about the church,” said Father Salobir, from something “dusty and old-fashioned” to something surprisingly relevant.

“Secondly, we discover together that we have concerns and questions in common and can build some elements of solution together,” he said. “That to my mind is paving the way for a society which is more in accordance to the Gospel, more respectful of the integrity of the human being.”

Visit optictechnology.org. To learn more about the Bay Area OPTIC network, email Brian Green at bpgreen@scu.edu.

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