Artificial intelligence: what opportunities?

Artificial intelligence: what opportunities?
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Can we confidently say that artificial intelligence is the opportunity of the century? How will it impact the future? Will its creative potential surpass that of flesh-and-blood humans? Do AIs help us better understand human nature? How can we regulate the application areas of such an integrated technology in our private and work lives?

On Friday, October 14th, Digital Club – Unindustria organized an event at the Technopole in Reggio Emilia to address these questions about artificial intelligence and its relationship with innovation.

The Unindustria group promotes a meeting place for businesses to discuss the latest topics in digital transformation. This particular event featured talks on artificial intelligence. Luciano Floridi, Stefano Quintarelli, and Marta Bertolaso provided insights, contributing valuable reflections on the initiative’s theme: Can AI be the opportunity of the century?

Stefano Quintarelli: Shared Data, Guarantees, and Regulations

Stefano Quintarelli, an IT entrepreneur and Member of Parliament from 2013 to 2018, is well-known. He proposed, conceived, and developed two technologies that are part of our daily lives: the SPID (public digital identity system) and the IO app.

His reflection starts from observing that the vast amount of data we produce daily, forming the basis for AI development, is undergoing a transformation. In the processes of implementing this technology, data quality, more than quantity, makes a difference, though many entities are not yet prepared in this sense. Proper data management represents a way for companies to be ready for future technical evolutions. “Data I don’t know what to do with today might be my most useful tool tomorrow.”

Quintarelli also highlighted the importance of interconnection between entities within the same supply chain to optimize and strengthen data quality through sharing. In these terms, companies using new technologies like Blockchain and NFTs to facilitate supply chain relationships could be key to enhancing corporate AIs. I imagine that, following the experiments already underway for some industries, real digital industrial districts could develop, where networks of companies share data and analyses to strengthen the entire supply chain, production, and distribution.

artificial intelligence

Discussing AI and shared data necessitates reflections on the concepts of guarantee and security. Quintarelli offers the example of SPID and the choice to make it a federated system involving the State and private entities, thus becoming mutual controllers of citizen data. This choice, while ensuring security against government changes, may open up other risks that need to be considered. The current law, based on the separation of powers, seems insufficient to offer adequate governance solutions for contemporary technologies and the inevitable challenges they bring with their implementation.

Regarding Artificial Intelligence, Quintarelli notes the importance of considering the ethical boundaries of this technology. Those interested can read an article in the BioLaw Journal – Rivista di BioDiritto, No. 3/2019, which outlines principles, obligations, rights, and recommendations for managing a technology increasingly present in our daily lives. Quintarelli is among the signatories of the transatlantic manifesto against AI threats, drafted with 17 scholars worldwide and presented on October 22nd in Rome, urging Europe and the United States to consider the provided guidelines “because, while technological innovation can be a driver of economic and social growth, it can also convey harm and negative consequences for society.”

According to Quintarelli, AI is not the opportunity of the century, but failing to use it would be a mistake. He reminded us of the tendency to overestimate short-term effects and underestimate long-term ones. This applies to our individual choices, how we deal with changes, and our perception of technological development. The real risk is that we might wake up too late, wondering why we didn’t intervene earlier to regulate our relationship with artificial intelligence.

In this sense, the words of Massimo Chiriatti in “Artificial Unconsciousness” echo when he compares the algorithm to a new alchemist.

“Algorithms analyze data relationships – not the values or meanings they represent. Thus, the algorithm does not ‘predict’ or ‘think,’ but merely constructs models following our footsteps. […] The algorithm is a productive mechanism that uses our data as raw material: it finds correlations and extracts rules. AI is thus a rule creator, following which it constructs its representation of the world. But it does so irresponsibly.”

Luciano Floridi: Opportunities to be Understood

Philosopher, he is a professor at the Oxford Internet Institute of the University of Oxford and the Department of Communication Sociology at the University of Bologna. On October 12th, he was awarded the title of “Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit” of the Italian Republic by decree of the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, the highest and most prestigious Italian honor for those who have particularly distinguished themselves in the fields of literature, the arts, economics, public service, and social, philanthropic, and humanitarian activities.

I have already discussed him in an article when I first met him at the Wired Next Fest in Florence, and

in my courses, I often refer to some of his concepts. He is an author I greatly admire.

Floridi’s reasoning starts with a question: what is intelligence?

Asking ten different people would probably yield ten different definitions, all correct and wrong in their own ways. The scientific literature also contains hundreds of definitions of this concept because intelligence can only be discussed in the plural. There are various classifications based on the type and nature of this faculty. As for so-called natural, biological, organic intelligence, we thus talk about emotional, functional, mathematical, creative, musical intelligence, etc.

And what do we mean when we talk about artificial intelligence?

Arriving at the artificiality linked to the concept of intelligence, two main traditions can be identified: an engineering type and one related to cognitive sciences. On one side, we have a science that studies intelligence to solve specific problems, and on the other, an attempt to reproduce a form of human intellect in its entire complexity. Over the years, we have achieved great milestones in the field of problem-solving through AI, while fluid and reproductive intelligences still present huge difficulties (indeed, reproducing the intelligence of a rodent would already be a significant achievement). If until a few years ago the advice would have been to desist from attempting to apply artificial intelligence to areas where non-binary or logical choices are required, something has changed in recent times. The significantly increased computing power in less than a decade and the data acquired worldwide open up unprecedented scenarios, even in the business field.

We are now facing a paradigm shift from a type of symbolic artificial intelligence (if>Then) to an organic one. The network can now rely on the analysis of an immense amount of data produced by web users to propose forecasts, statistics, texts, images, sounds, and much more. Floridi highlights how the entire human production, from the origin of our species until 2005, can be quantified at about 1 or 2 Zettabytes, while in the last twenty years, data have been produced on the order of 170, with exponential growth (hence the talk of the Zettabyte Era).

artificial intelligence

Regarding this quantification, personally, I harbor serious doubts. I have often spoken about these topics, but one point continues to elude me. Information has not only weight but also space, time, and different power. How many MB would “Guernica” make? Or the Rosetta Stone? We’re not talking about hard drives or a router.

Brutalizing human knowledge by reducing it to a succession of 0s and 1s, in my opinion, would mean reducing knowledge to its digital encoding, neglecting its depth and impact over time. I believe some consideration must be added to avoid misleading slips that could lead to a somewhat approximate use of the term “Zettabyte.” It would be like thinking of the Renaissance in terms of square meters of frescoes. We can certainly say that during that period in Florence, more walls and vaults were painted than at any other historical period, but it would be somewhat limiting to stop at this observation.

It is undeniable that from an informational perspective, humans are experiencing a season never seen before. However, to do this, there is no need to bother with the number of words written in the illuminated manuscripts by an abbot of the 11th century but simply refer to computing from Turing onwards. Today, the number of processed data, the computing power of computer systems and so-called neural networks, the quality and possibility of connection between users and devices distinguish a world in continuous acceleration and intense exchange of information.

In such a scenario, AI, in the two traditions well described by Floridi, is evolving rapidly: we have all the right cards, computing power, and data, for deep learning and machine learning to draw from potentially infinite databases.

However, I remain skeptical about the thought of an entity that does not know or experience death, that does not have a body, that does not know pain, the experience of existence (as Byung-chul Han seems to have problematized): an exaggeration of Cartesian dualism in which body and soul are split by nature (artificial), the “cogito” in its worst form. It would follow that the good, for a machine, will be very different from what is considered good by a human being.

Once again, Chiriatti, in an interview with Pandora magazine, recalling the description of our cognitive processes according to Daniel Kahneman, reminds us that to System 1, which operates automatically and quickly, and System 2, which instead performs more demanding mental activities, requiring cognitive depth and effort, has been added System 0, called Iasima, which helps us in making decisions. Iasima is the artificial intelligence outside our body that observes all our actions: it captures them in the form of data that it processes and filters. Iasima “learns,” but the term “learning” risks confusing us if we mistakenly think that a pile of silicon and bits has our same characteristics.

System 0 is only a simulation of human reasoning: its are not “true” decisions.

No one intends to deny the benefits that computing and automation bring to humanity, but we cannot certainly neglect the possible nefarious effects of these innovations, risking the re-proposition 2.0 of a neopositivist thought that I believe has already done enough damage. We know, from now sadly consolidated experience, that every technology is exploited almost always and above all for military and then commercial purposes, rarely for humanitarian ends. Therefore, I believe some doubts should also arise in the most enlightened minds regarding the exaltation of Artificial Intelligence.

Let machines do what machines do well. Store, predict plethoric events, perhaps even park a car, but the creaturely, to use Bateson’s terminology, let’s leave it to humans.

Marta Bertolaso: Reflections on the Human Dimension

Marta Bertolaso is a professor of Philosophy of Science at the Faculty of Sciences and Technologies for Man and the Environment and Head of the Research Unit of Philosophy of Sciences and Human Development at the Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. Her approach to answering the meeting’s question struck me immediately.

Artificial Intelligence is an opportunity for what? An opportunity for whom?

We are not machines nor data. We guide AIs, using them as a means to explore new dimensions by investigating endless correlations between diverse and distant factors, but then we suffer the consequences.

How much are machines changing our social codes?

For example, Whatsapp’s blue double check marks represent a novelty in human communication. We know the recipient has read the message but has not yet replied. One could argue that a registered letter with a return receipt would have the same effect, but it’s needless to emphasize how the factor of time plays a role in all this, a time that is informative. Replying after 5 minutes or 5 days is a communicative act.

She also asks why a general state of anxiety persists, necessitating a re-investigation and understanding of the human inhabiting digital spaces anew.

From this, she proposes a new business and management model. A generative leadership, not directive and non-hierarchical (inefficient in a VUCA context) capable of “holding the edges,” caring for semantically relevant spaces within organizations where not the specific function but the relationship being built counts. A leadership able to nurture a healthy environment, to escape fears (of the boss, of dismissal, of the pandemic) that enslave us and unleash our potential, our uniqueness to bring true innovation and well-being for ourselves and society. This also answers the needs emerged post-pandemic such as quiet quitting and great resignation.

She further observes how the ability to take care of oneself, seeking one’s dimension even through silence, is an essentially human factor. Even in a break, a moment of relaxation and detachment from everything, the human being is still constantly receiving information, from oneself, the surrounding space, one’s body, and one’s inner self. For the machine, however, silence equals non-existence, a lack of input. A silence in a symphony is meaningful; it can create anxiety, prepare for a crescendo, an explosion, deceive us. For a machine, a pause is nothing, just a series of zeros in time, a lack of recordable signal. Without silence, we find ourselves in an informational horror vacui, causing overload but not increasing information, (which is why I have been working on digital wellness and digital detox design for years).

“How do I explain to my wife that when I’m looking out the window, I’m working?” pondered Joseph Conrad, the author of “Heart of Darkness,” the novel that inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now.

Breaks are quality time

Bertolaso recalled how in ancient Greek, the idea of time could be expressed according to two notions, Kronos, the time of the Gods, the God who devours his children, eternal and therefore devoid of sense, urgency (that of machines), and Kairos, the time of man, finite time, characterized by the ability to seize the moment’s opportunities, by the awareness of the end.

“I seek the man,” replied the poor philosopher who made the heroic Alexander the Great step aside because he was casting a shadow. And perhaps, precisely by questioning ourselves on the use of artificial intelligence, it’s time to find first a being that frees itself from the idea of functional performance, whose value is given solely by what it does, produces, thinks, and communicates. Before thinking of a future co-designed by the interaction between man and machine, perhaps we first need to consciously evolve to be able to guide this revolution.

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