Forbes included him in its prestigious list dedicated to Italy’s 100 most influential managers: Cristiano Boscato, Adjunct Professor and Executive Director of the Open Program Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in BBS, is the owner and EVP of Injenia, a leading Italian company in digital innovation projects. In this interview we discuss the relationship between artificial intelligence and human intelligence, technological innovation and society, and the vision of the future contained in his latest book.
Technology fascinates and transforms businesses and users’ lives, and topics such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are now on the agenda for those operating in today’s market. How do the mechanisms of these two elements address the indispensable human component in corporate realities?
The topic of the relationship between people and machines (where by machines I mean AI and ML algorithms) is certainly very much the order of the day. I must say that – alas – I find a lot of information aimed at extolling the power of machines, almost with technocratic faith, or frightening with respect to the future – from “machines will take over” to “they will take people’s jobs away,” while I find little that is serious and knowledgeable. In fact, we need to reason from two considerations. The first is that state-of-the-art algorithms are “stupid,” that is, non-sentient. They are “trained” for specific purposes through source data, which allows them to learn and then give outputs. But it’s people who decide what data to give the algorithms, for what purpose, and then evaluate the results obtained. Machines alone do nothing. The second is that these are very powerful tools that are improving at exponential rates and will profoundly change the way we live and work. Here then, the answer to the question is quite straightforward: we need people who are trained, prepared and aware of how to use these tools. Not from a technical point of view, but in terms of the potential and possibilities offered. We then need people trained in general about technology, data and the business of their company. Indeed, algorithms may allow us to see phenomena from a different perspective in terms of quantity and quality of data, but the people are the ones who take the decisions. And decisions are well taken if you have the tools to really evaluate the correctness of what you are reasoning about. Since they are very powerful tools, if you don’t have the foundation to be able to make informed decisions, you run the risk of doing great harm. Another fundamental aspect of the people/machine relationship is the ethical one. It concerns our lives. Precisely because it is people who take decisions, and because these tools are powerful, if used maliciously they can generate distorted phenomena of enormous gravity. That is why we need to be informed and educated not only for our work, but also for our lives. We need less bombast and more awareness. These are tools that can greatly improve our lives and our work, if used intelligently. Intelligence is human, not artificial.
The Open Program in A.I. & Machine Learning Roadmap & Business Opportunity, in which you serve as Executive Director, focuses on strongly future-oriented topics and upcoming challenges in this regard. What are the new scenarios opening up through these new technologies?
As I said in the previous answer, the scenarios are huge, and we are just at the beginning of this disruption. The potential of AI and ML tools are still not fully explored, but they are already changing the lives of all of us. These algorithms are being used to decide what advertisements to show us, to study our political habits or as consumers, to study not only financial phenomena, but also climate phenomena. Or they are totally changing some industries. Let’s consider chess, where now a home-made software can beat the world chess champion (see the recent cheating controversy), or the fact that Deep Mind, a Google company that is advancing the frontier on the subject, has been able to unveil the three-dimensional structure of more than 200 million proteins (previously those unveiled were about 300 thousand) virtually all the ones we know, giving a huge boost -in a very short time- to biology, medicine and pharmacology.
New technologies make headlines and in theory are always a promise of new opportunities and successes. In practice, however, there is the problem of making innovations applicable on a large scale and identifying the innovation needed and appropriate for one’s business within a given time frame. How does one deal with this problem in practice and what are the skills a manager must have to do so effectively? Given the nature of the issues, we are faced with topics that can evolve at an extreme speed, often with sudden changes. How can this be addressed?
As I mentioned earlier, being able to reason about technology and data is essential for every manager today. Every person in the company must know how to reason about the technological tools best suited to their work and tasks, as well as how to interpret data related to their work. Only in this way can we stay abreast of the speed of change. Delegating it to the IT department today is a serious mistake. IT has another function, which is technical and specialized. But only businesspeople can really know what they need to do their jobs well. So, we need companies that work on this and train their people. Just as they need to be trained to be able to think about their business, to know it thoroughly (including through data). That is the starting point. Then you need soft skills to communicate with colleagues in a fruitful way, and to know how to engage people and motivate them. The manager of the future is a mix of all of these: having the knowledge of technology, data and business, and being able to engage in positive dialogue with both technical and business figures. A figure somewhere between expertise in STEM subjects and humanistic skills. In fact, I am a great believer in the importance of a good humanities foundation to be a successful manager.
What is needed, however, is for companies to move organically and quickly: change is sudden and leaves no room for wavering. Not even for those who today believe they have a dominant position in their market.
Your first book “On a Summer’s Night I Saw the Future” was recently released. It talks about technology and perspectives not only for companies, but also about people. Can you give us some insights with respect to the content of the book? What were the questions that led you to write this first book? Was the exchange with BBS students in any way stimulating with respect to the writing?
The book stems specifically from my lectures at BBS, my speeches at events and conferences, and in general from my interaction in innovation projects over the past decade with leading Italian companies. There is one key question in the book: how can companies manage change and the challenges of the future once and for all? Without patches or short-term tactics, but with a clear and lasting horizon?
I felt the need to try to give an answer other than the usual rhetoric to this question-surely already heard over and over -by trying to shift the focus and start from the fact that we must take it for granted that the only thing certain is and will be change. Companies as we know them will change, as will the work we do today. From here I tried to give an organic and comprehensive answer, working on 3 areas that for me are the key aspects to consider: People, Technology and Culture/Organization. In my experiences, there is a tendency to focus on only one of these 3 aspects vertically, whereas I have sought a holistic approach. It is therefore a book for entrepreneurs, but also for managers or recent graduates. Anyone who wants to try to think more about how to improve the company or in the company. I talk about organization, but also about teams and the responsibility of the individual. The particular thing about the book is that I have tried to give it a narrative slant: it is a tale of a trip to Sicily, where in each chapter something happens that becomes a metaphor for the concept I am trying to explain in that chapter. Then the journey ends, and with that also come the answers to the initial question. But that’s all I’m saying to avoid spoilers. Although in the end the answer is: dynamic balance (not the butler).
You recently joined Forbes’ Top 100 Italian Managers; you have achieved this milestone by working on issues and realities at the forefront of innovation. What will be the next step? What should managers who will be part of the next Top 100 focus on?
More than the next step, I would rather talk about the next steps, because I have so many projects and ideas in my head. Starting from helping to grow Injenia and the Maggioli Group even more, or from internationalizing Interacta, one of the products/software I am most proud of, which is getting huge feedback in the Italian market. Or seeing my latest startup Enchora ramp up. And then I have a couple of new projects coming up. More generally, though – whatever I do and will do – I’m interested in keeping the bar straight on certain issues, the same ones I explore in the book: contributing, day after day, to changing the culture of companies toward an approach that puts people at the center. It means sustainability, inclusion, space for young people (not for their age but young inside), and an approach that leads us to be satisfied with the work we do and that puts us in a position to achieve our full potential. I believe the time is right for this change, thanks in part to the support of technology. With Interacta for example, we have made a manifesto of natural interaction where we put down on paper the 30 tenets for the collaborative work of the future, aimed at the fulfillment and work happiness for each of us. Here, I believe that Forbes’ recognition, for the achievements of these twenty years, comes also from tenaciously trying – in courses and wherever I have had the opportunity – to think about and bring forward this vision of the future. A vision made of the responsibility of each person in a team, made of a knowledgeable culture, and made of collective growth in the company. I could go on for hours delving into these themes. The answer to the question is this: being a manager today means first and foremost being able to empower one’s people to express themselves to the fullest. The rest is a natural consequence, including economic success.