Barbara Carfagna, Rai author and journalist, opened the Fall Edition of the 2018 Innovation Talks on November 15th. On the occasion of her speech Datacracy, dedicated to the future of democracy at the dawn of the third phase of the internet, Barbara Carfagna shared in this interview her vision on the latest technological advances and their impact on society.
During the TG1 report ‘Onlife, how the digital changes the man’, you showed the hyper-technological daily life of the inhabitants of Singapore, a city-state where data regulate services, security and even relationships. The report shows a certain benevolence of people to give up part of their freedom in exchange for widespread welfare and social security. In a sense, are not those the same promises of some political regimes of the past? Is it history that is repeating with new means, or do you think we are facing a cultural revolution that will bring humanity to a completely new and unexplored direction?
The absolute novelty lies in the fact that there is no violence in this mode of the state to regulate the behavior of citizens, but there is simply a great study of data and human nature. Certainly, some modalities and some themes refer to past experiences. The combination of artificial intelligence, the computational capacity of data collection and algorithms, have undoubtedly created something new that represents the dream some dictatorships of the past. Sometimes I think, having made a reportage in Cambodia in 2001, 30 years after the Pol Pot regime, that if he had had such a system available, he would certainly have implemented it instead of violent repression.
At the same time, however, in the specific case of Singapore, it must be said that it is a particularly difficult region with scarce natural resources, enormous difficulties from an environmental point of view and where 4-5 different ethnic groups live together. Basically, it was the emergency that created a very efficient society under virtually impossible conditions, and to do so, it used a highly technological system developed with the help of MIT in Boston. In a sense, Singapore has almost become an open-air experiment for Silicon Valley and MIT.
We are building the digital world around commercial logics and efficiency, but what is lacking, as the philosopher Luciano Floridi says, is the human project that should be at the center of everything. Considering that the processes in force in Singapore will soon extend, in a more or less integral way, to all the countries of the world through large digital societies, one must begin to understand their logic and manage their power.
Digital is by its nature globalizing and, according to some theories, in the near future it will lead to the end of national borders and governments. In your opinion, is this a likely scenario and, above all, is humanity ready to self-regulate? Will it still be possible to guarantee security and democracy in a society where every form of hierarchical governance is absent or is it more likely that the classical national structures will simply be replaced by other bodies?
In my opinion, considering the way in which the digital world is being built, people’s safety and democracy can not be guaranteed without a superstructure. Reasoning about who should build it, we certainly can not expect to delegate this task to individual governments, but we need a political project in the highest sense of the term, which places itself above the nations. It will be necessary to create supranational organizations as there have been in the past, for example in defense and in human rights.
Of course, what we see today is a paradox. We are breaking down the boundaries in digital, while nationalisms are being strengthened. In this moment of chaos in the digital world, dictatorships are becoming increasingly efficient.
The Boston MIT is studying a system to predict the elements that cause stress to the human being, in Singapore the government anticipates the needs of citizens, companies all over the world exploit data to offer highly personalized and targeted products. Does technology really help us, or does it detract from creativity, inventiveness and a large part of personal development that also comes from tackling difficulties and from the freedom to experiment, make mistakes and express ourselves? In your opinion, this urge to satisfy our tastes and needs so precisely in real time, does not it flatten us culturally and as human beings?
We must first of all see if these studies on our behavior will be grounded and what effects they will have. Certainly, this in which we live is rightly called by someone the Society of Oracles: once we had the Oracle of Delphi, but today we have an algorithm that tells us what is stressing us in order to induce us to behaviors that are more useful and healthy for us. We even have oracles in the house. In the case of Alexa, the virtual assistant of Amazon, the algorithm will know all our home habits – what time we get up, what we cook – and then guide us in commercial terms.
It remains anyway difficult to think that all this can somehow flatten us. The human being is so full of facets that each of us will continue to do what he wants and how he wants, as long as we will be conscious and aware of the mechanisms that surround us.
The algorithm also has a big limit, because it crystallizes things referring to the past. On the one hand it is predictive and can help, I for example use a lot of Twitter that, analyzing my data, gives me back a service in the form of a personal press review. But there are other situations in which algorithms, working on behaviors of the past, reinforce habits that are not necessarily positive. I am thinking of how, for example, analyzing people’s behavior and then inserting them into groups of individuals with the same opinions, can lead to disasters such as those we have seen recently in politics.
The reinforcement of prejudices, assisted by the activity of the algorithms, is also the basis for the creation of fake news. In fact, ad hoc truths are created in order to adapt to what people want to hear, to the detriment of more objective descriptions and narratives. We will certainly enjoy more creativity when artificial intelligence will be developed properly, because it will not be based on an algorithm but on constant learning.
We often hear that Italy does not compete in the world with innovation and technology, but with its aesthetic sense, tradition, know-how and creativity. According to you, in the future, the peculiarities of our country will be a strength, since they are an exclusive prerogative of the human being and therefore hardly substitutable by artificial intelligence, or our country would do better to take the race towards digitalization seriously and direct more resources in this direction?
I firmly believe that the Italian question of craftsmanship and Made in Italy will become the basis of privilege and luxury. Probably, however, the processes which serve the artisans to optimize their work, will be digitalized. The craftsmen know-how will obviously remain the same, but other factors in the digital world will help them to innovate and therefore produce better and in a more targeted manner.
Other Italian companies will instead be completely digitalized and will benefit greatly from the 4.0 and the robotics which, although they are still a little bit scary, contribute concretely to making the industries more efficient. Thus, the two can surely coexist.
Furthermore, the use of the blockchain can help Made in Italy products to be recognized abroad and to preserve their originality, thus risking less often to find counterfeit products, whose poor quality undermines the image of our country.
According to Darwin, ignorance generates trust more often than knowledge. Do you think our society has embraced the promise of the third phase of the Internet with too much ease, without questioning itself deeply enough about the negative implications? What is the aspect of the future, glimpsed during the filming of your TV program Code, which scares you the most and which we should become aware of?
What scares me is the possibility of using technology in politics and in disciplinary realities, because there I see the possibility of ‘hacking’ the free will. Hiroshi Ishiguro, Director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory of the University of Osaka, thinks that the society of the future will be divided into a ruling class, able to program and dialogue with the machines, and in an biological mass that will be destined for citizenship income and that will follow only what has been imagined by others.
The social rating in China is even worse, it is a very invasive system, which will no longer be recognized or questioned by those who will already be born inside. At this point another question arises: Singapore’s super computer, which is now programmed and managed by algorithms created by human beings, will one day be able to manage itself? In that case will it really become the leader, bypassing the man? It is not to be excluded.
So we realize, in the light of artificial intelligence, what man and the human mind really are: on the one hand an extraordinary mechanism, but at the same time also easily tamed, at least now. I am even more convinced that dissemination is needed to make people aware of what is happening around them and in some way limit the possibility of being unknowingly regulated.
The advancement of robotics seemed to have freed man only from unimaginative, physically weary and dangerous jobs, but we increasingly witness the use of artificial intelligence to perform complex and typically human tasks, such as the direction of an orchestra, care for the elderly and customer service. According to your experience as a journalist, constantly in touch with the human factor, what are the skills and abilities on which today’s young people should focus more, to win the competition with artificial intelligence in the labor market of the future?
In reality the two things must be integrated. I give an example on the care of the elderly. In a Japanese nursing home I visited, the robots took care of the guests along with the caregivers. The surprising fact is that the elderly preferred to do exercises with the robots because they felt less uncomfortable with their disabilities in front of a machine that was not able to judge them.
In any case, the competence to design and program the robots still belongs to the man, thus to the caregiver or assistant who works with the elderly person. Even the search for new and alternative ways of using artificial intelligence and applying it to practical use is a skill that must be acquired and developed by humans.
There is a world of extraordinary opportunities for those 20 years old now, a whole world to create and build. So we must not focus on what is lost but on what can be acquired and created again.
Barbara Carfagna – November 15, 2018, Villa Guastavillani, Bologna