The following is the transcript of a presentation I gave at TEDx ReggioEmilia on Dec 2, 2023.
When several decades ago SMS text messages on mobile phones became widespread, I was skeptical. I didn’t see the utility and I hadn’t made an effort to use them, despite my passion for technology. In fact, I realized that I was at a crossroads in my story. On one hand, I could be curious and continue to experiment. On the other hand, perhaps retreat into the tranquility of the experiences I had already acquired. I can assure you that I chose the first path. Since then, I not only became an expert in texting, but I also use emojis, I have my channels of short videos, and carried out other experiments, such as implanting a chip in my hand “just to see what it feels like,” as the song goes. This happens to us individually, but it also occurs at the level of groups, our societies.
A course of history, which can change in one direction or another, in how a community, a nation, embraces or rejects technology. We would all be speaking Chinese here, if China in the 1300s had not given up on geographical explorations that were leading them to the discovery of Europe. And there are many other examples.
In those times, technological innovations spread slowly. It could take even 100 or 200 years, or more, for a discovery, a novelty, an innovation to begin to spread and change society, the way we organized ourselves to face our problems, our challenges. Today we see an acceleration of this and the latest innovations take little time, a few decades or as we see today through digital infrastructures, the platforms that surround us, actually a few years, a few months, to be available everywhere, for those who want to experiment.
Through all this, of course, what we are, human nature, has not changed. Evolution has brought us as biological beings to what we are and for hundreds of thousands of years we confirm ourselves in our curiosity, our ambition, but also in impulses that we use to label as animal impulses.
Today we are probably on the threshold of an important change, perhaps the most important that human civilization has witnessed, has experienced. It is a transformation, of a new technology that is presenting itself. It is already here. And it is the technology of artificial intelligence.
Those in the know are aware that it took important efforts, lasting decades in laboratories, with a lot of negative results, defeats, frustrations. For those who have not had the opportunity to see this progressive evolution, instead, it seems something sudden. Almost in the blink of an eye, we have tools, platforms, solutions, applications that can do things that were previously only in science fiction books.
In fact, it even happens a bit the other way around. All of us have encountered tests to prove that we are human. Systems that compare automation that can abuse the functionalities of a platform to prove to you, the user, that you have the right to use it, and therefore ask you to prove if you are actually human. These tests are becoming increasingly difficult. I sometimes throw in the towel. I know I’m human, but today, right now, I can’t prove it to you.
And this is actually a problem. What happens if increasingly powerful, increasingly autonomous systems go on trying to achieve their goals without being supervised, without involving human users? What role can we then have? It’s a question we urgently need to ask ourselves and it’s a question that can be analyzed using those same tools that artificial intelligence provides us.
In fact, the role of the human being, our purposes, our dignity, what we are going to do as individuals but also as a whole society, is an important question. Today, in the middle of the third decade of the 21st century, but it’s probably a question that can define the trajectory of human civilization for hundreds or thousands of years in the future, depending on whether we give up the powerful functions, the opportunities that these tools offer us, or whether we manage to embrace them, but in a responsible manner.
One of the difficulties stems precisely from the speed with which these changes are happening, pushing each of us against the limits of our own adaptability. We must therefore train ourselves to be more adaptable. We were as children, taking spontaneous risks, exploring the world still largely unknown to us, with parents, adults, who watched us in astonishment. And this, to be able to take risks, to continue taking risks is something that we must either regain on the one hand or maintain on the other. There’s also a word that describes it: it’s neoteny. Maintaining childlike characteristics in adulthood. Curiosity, a healthy lack of respect for authority, and exploration of the world.
A particular category of people is predisposed to this, either by nature, or has self-selected in this way: and they are the startup founders. This entrepreneurship model born in Silicon Valley has now spread all over the world and I as an investor, as an observer, but also a participant in the startup ecosystem, see that it is an exhilarating life as a public facade, but often also a lonely life, where you receive signals of possible failure daily, and where people therefore need to receive support from wherever it can come.
I believe that the support that artificial intelligence can give to this group of people can represent a very important example that can be extended to society as a whole. In fact, artificial intelligence today can be a mentor, an advisor, a coach for people who can talk to it and try to understand their priorities, where to go and what questions they can ask themselves. I also invented a new word. I called them Actioneer. A bit like pioneers, but who not only explore. They also go to analyze, implement and further evolve innovation with the help of artificial intelligence.
The median age in Italy is quite high and so there could be people who say: “A very nice and interesting speech, that can involve the young people, these startuppers, who I am now told also circulate in Italy. But it doesn’t concern me. I’m already retired and meanwhile I don’t need to care.
Actually, it’s not like that!
Precisely due of the rapidity of the changes, which can transform the social infrastructures so radically, as to jeopardize the social contract itself. All of us must be involved regardless of age and we cannot wash our hands of it.
We must therefore expose ourselves, take those risks that perhaps we thought were the responsibility only of children or of this exotic group of people who presume to be able to create who knows what new thing. We must train ourselves to extend our adaptability, and we can do so in such an easy way. Because maybe decades ago, when computers were born, they needed air-conditioned laboratories, with people in white coats, specialists, and no one else could touch the them. But then new forms arrived, personal computers. Now we have cell phones, supercomputers in our pockets.
The new platforms of artificial intelligence based on natural language conversations, eliminate any barrier to entry, eliminate any excuse. All of us can start to experiment with them.
This is my invitation! And this is what may be necessary…
Some may not feel comfortable, may not know exactly how to start. No problem. You can ask the AI itself what are the most important questions for you in your situation and without hesitation, you will get a possible list of starting points where you can then go and explore.
So already today, tonight, go home, take the initiative, make that first step. And let’s start to understand how this shared future, flanked by new powerful tools, can define a new dignity, a new purpose for humanity, for all of us.