Useful Analogies For A World Of Abundance

I spoke about advanced Artificial Intelligence and humanoid robots at the “Ideas for the future” conference in Rome. Here is the video recording of my speech in Italian, 1 hour 50 minutes after the start of the live broadcast, followed by the revised transcript, together with questions from the audience.

Technology created humanity. We have coevolved with our inventions. Fire, for example, allows us to predigest the food we ingest. Unlike our cousins ​​gorillas or other apes who share 98% of their DNA with us, who dedicate a large part of the day simply to obtaining calories, ingesting them and digesting them. We may like to have nice two or three hour lunches, but we do it by choice, because the use of fire allows us to nourish our body with great efficiency. Our digestive system has biologically adapted to this fact. This is just an example to highlight that we are characterized by this technological component that we must responsibly take advantage of. 

Think about it, the poor dinosaurs… Not having telescopes, they couldn’t see that the asteroid that led to their extinction was coming. We have these telescopes, both concrete and metaphorical, and therefore it is good that we use them.

The transformations that have involved us are so profound that they make the world unrecognizable. But even the world of the past has characteristics that make it unrecognizable to us. Our World in Data shows the graph of maternal mortality over the last 200 years falling precipitously. Imagine what the world must have been like in which a pregnancy represented a real danger of death. With large families, imagine a world where it was almost guaranteed that one of your children would never live past the age of five. It’s a world that I psychologically wouldn’t be able to identify with, I just wouldn’t be able to conceive how I would live in a world like that.

Here’s a more recent example, a hundred years ago, I did a rough calculation. Italy was a country of great emigration. The annual income of a family allowed it to buy a couple of tickets to go from Rome to New York in third class and it took two weeks. Compared to today where I’m not saying it’s universal, but roughly a couple of weeks’ salary buys you a plane ticket from Rome to New York. Instead of taking two weeks, you go up in the morning and have dinner easily right there.

Another example: how many films from the ’50s or ’60s feature intercontinental love affairs? Ten minutes of phone call could cost 400-500 euros. It had to be a correspondence in written letters because few could afford to hear each other verbally. And today? Things have changed so much that it’s literally free, it’s not even worth measuring the cost of a video call anywhere on the planet. 

Important changes that not only continue but accelerate. We see them in many different areas that intersect and reinforce each other. 

I want to highlight just two areas in particular and see what kind of analogy can help us understand and decipher the consequences. The first is that of artificial intelligence. Just as the ability to transport goods or people across the planet has become abundant, or the ability to communicate has become abundant, what will become abundant through artificial intelligence is the ability to reason. Thinking together with our tools that no longer support us in a mere calculation, as the calculator can literally be, but that support us to better face, analyze and overcome simple or complex problems.

The second technology I want to highlight is that of humanoid robots. Robots which, unlike the industrial ones of which Italy is one of the world leaders, must no longer be isolated in cages because they are dangerous. This new generation of robots, equipped with artificial intelligence, will be able to apply common sense to what they are actually doing, planning their actions. So it will be freed from these pre-established cages and will act as a link to many processes. They will be not only in our factories but also in our homes, with a production rate of these units that some predict could reach a billion units per year within a decade.

So what fundamentally defined the economy and the various measures such as gross domestic product, which perhaps varied for one economy that was better organized than another, but ultimately were proportional to the number of people who could work, will now be decoupled completely. A nation, whether large or small, will be able to produce as much as it wants because it will only depend on how many robots it can produce and employ.

And what will this mean? First of all, I am in the privileged position of being neither a politician nor a regulator and therefore I do not have to pretend to have the right answers. It is an impossible position for these colleagues of ours who have been elected or put in a place where they have to pretend to know what will happen. I hope it increases our tolerance for those politicians or regulators who say, “Look, I’m doing my best with all of you, but if you ask me to have a crystal ball, you’re asking me to tell a lie or a series of lies. lies, even dangerous ones.”

However, there is great evocative power in analogies that can lead us on a path to interpret the consequences of the future that arrives based on the various parameters we have seen. The analogy I would like to offer you today is that of a newborn child who is not asked to account for how many breaths he takes. Breathe, of course, because oxygen is abundant. And when he reaches 18 no one tells him “Ok, so now that you’re starting to work you have to repay this number of breaths you’ve taken”. 

We can begin to try to decipher how a world will function where, thanks to artificial intelligence and humanoid robots, economic productivity will have advanced to the point of extending this concept to other things that are scarce today and which will instead be abundant in the future. We need to start thinking about it now because there will be other radical and rapid consequences. What has so far defined a person’s life and often also their dignity, that is, their work, will change completely. Asking to adapt to a change is reasonable, but it is also right that everyone recognizes that there are limits to this adaptability. So building a society that can understand how to support, how to promote a life that still has dignity and purpose in an inclusive way for all is the most important challenge we face. Thank you.

Questions from moderators and the audience

Francesca Ponzecchi: When we talk about generative artificial intelligence, what are we talking about? And above all, what is the impact on our lives, in the present and above all in the near future?

David: My mother is a painter, I never acquired the ability to express myself visually, drawing or painting. I made all the slides you saw using a platform called Mid Journey, composing the textual description of the images that I then wanted to create, possibly varying them, but in a very short time, literally a few tens of minutes, because I knew what I wanted to say. That always helps. 

So I see in the power of generative artificial intelligence precisely this multiplier force of creativity and expressiveness, not only in visual terms. How many of you have used ChatGPT? Great, let’s put half the people. How many of you have WhatsApp? Ok, you all have WhatsApp pretty much. Those who didn’t raise their hands weren’t paying attention. 

Why did I ask the second thing rather than the first? Because WhatsApp, however, is something that ten years ago one didn’t have. Maybe if they told you to adopt him you would reply “But to do what? I don’t care, I don’t need it, leave me alone.” And with these tools that allow you to dialogue and explore concepts, ideas, refine them – things that you then perhaps verify, I recommend, even separately – it is something that you can, or rather I would ask you, you must adopt as soon as possible. At least try it, get your hands a little dirty to start perceiving the future in which they will be universal, we will all use them. So images, texts, but also songs, videos, many things can be done today with generative artificial intelligence.

Francesca: When we talk about general artificial intelligence, we are clearly taking a leap into the future. So I would ask you how do you see the development of artificial intelligence? What do you think a future might look like in which artificial intelligence has had a sudden evolution like the one it is having at the moment?

David: Artificial intelligence is a scientific and engineering field that we can call a bit masochistic because as soon as it reaches even astonishing results, specialists in the field immediately say “Well, but that doesn’t count, that’s just mechanical calculation”. In the past decades we have taken many steps where exactly this has happened. 

In the 1990s, an IBM program beat the world chess champion, Kasparov. Deep Blue, as it was called, was immediately dismissed as something that didn’t matter. Today the things that artificial intelligence is capable of doing are amazing, science fiction. Yet we get used to these results so quickly that we no longer even notice how powerful they are. 

What is about to happen now is that the different modules, if we want to call them very simply, are integrated together, they are able to communicate with each other, a bit like the different talents that we can have. There are people who know how to draw, speak and dance. Very good. And so artificial intelligence will be able to do it. Just as we apply our different talents to analyze problems, tackle them, gather the resources to solve them and see what the next problem we want to tackle is, so will artificial intelligence be able to do it. 

The moment this happens or happens, and I believe it will happen, then we will talk about general artificial intelligence. Surely there will be people who will say “Well, but that doesn’t count” and will immediately set themselves the next goal. But it will be a truly watershed moment. Because already today we can humbly recognize that there are things we don’t know how to do, that other people are better than us. There are natural talents in music, in calculation, in many areas. The moment there are systems as equally talented as the people further ahead in the particular field, in each of the fields, then we will truly be amazed. And that’s why this moment will be a watershed moment. 

If you asked it three, four years ago, the experts might have told you “But who knows, 10, 20 years, 30, maybe never”. Opinions could be all over the place. The latest results, which are then visible and touchable in these tools that I mentioned, have led experts to begin to converge on much closer dates. And today there are those who say that this radical watershed could arrive within two or three years.

Francesca: What does it mean in your opinion to design a future of cohabitation between humans and humanoid robots? And above all, what kind of implications does this have from a social and ethical point of view on the redesign of society?

David: Let’s talk about men first because it is essential that the transformation occurs in a different way compared to a transformation that took place a hundred years ago, when we replaced horses with cars. There are some impressive images of Fifth Avenue in New York in 1914, packed with horses and horse-drawn carriages. There were even international conferences on how to deal with the problem of horse excrement which was accumulating exponentially and would have submerged all the cities. The problem was then resolved and the photograph taken ten years later shows the same fifth street, all full of cars and perhaps there is a cart still with horses. What happened to the horses? We ate them, for those who do, the others became glue or whatever. 

A report from a foundation came out recently, tremendously titled “This time we are the horses”. It must be, instead of a self-fulfilling prophecy, a self-cancelling prophecy, which highlights the absurdity of this statement. What we must understand is that the means of production must actually benefit people and we must find a social pact that allows the people who exist in society to be included in this circle of benefits. 

The American social pact is the exact opposite, because it says that your value is equal to your economic output and when this goes to zero because you lose your job, your value goes to zero and you can go and die in a ditch. The European social pact is a little softer, there are social protection networks that say “Please, get busy and then sooner or later you have to be autonomous in supporting yourself”. But the possibility of telling, for example, fifty-year-old truck drivers that when the trucks drive themselves is not a problem, because they can become web designers anyway… He punches you and he’s right, because it’s a mockery that this is a real possibility. 

So we must be more courageous, more creative, more inventive, full of leadership even of a political nature to invent what can work. Since there is no ready answer, this can only happen through continuous experimentation, not only local but global, where we must not overlook the possibility of identifying what really works and adopting it without hesitation. Because only in this way can we actually understand how not to end up like horses.

Francesca: What is the environmental impact of this type of path we are facing?

David: The impact can be as huge as we want or as small as we want, it depends on the technological scale we position ourselves on. 90% of the world around us would be impossible with medieval technologies, unthinkable. And if someone absurdly tried to calculate what it would take to create even a fraction of the things we enjoy every day with those technologies, they would discover that the entire world would have to be sacrificed just to make a city like Rome live up to today’s standards. 

Technological progress is what allows us to make up for the inefficiencies that cause damage. It is unsustainability that is unsustainable and the moment we realize this we ensure that this inefficiency is eliminated. An example is the quality of life in our cities. Victorian stories and novels depicting an almost unlivable London are a thing of the past. The fogs of London are no longer there because the pollution that caused those fogs has disappeared. 

There are even more surprising studies, such as the use of fuels with lead additives which may have caused crime waves in the 1980s because children were growing up with significant cognitive deficits. When we eliminated lead from fuel these crime waves disappeared, and this disappearance of crime was not necessarily due to the rate of incarceration that solved the crimes. So we must recognize the power of the radical transformations that technology can bring us. 

Today we are there, the moment you read an article that says “We cannot embrace artificial intelligence because it consumes all the electricity we have available”… You can easily recognize that electricity is not a finite quantity, it is proportional to how much we produce them. And since a great growth factor in electricity production today is represented by solar energy, when you calculate it we have a thousand times today’s quantity available, simply if we want to start collecting it. 

So we can operate in a sustainable way and grow our economy to levels that are literally unthinkable today, not only by not destroying the environment, but by improving the environment, lowering the impact we have on the planet today.

Francesca: I close this first part of our chat with a theme that is very dear to me, which is that of conscious transition. That is, the level of awareness in understanding how this path is actually a great opportunity and not a path that should scare us, especially with regards to the impact of technology on the modification of all social rules. I wanted to understand from you, in your opinion, what is the right balance between seizing this moment as a great opportunity and not being stopped by the fear of facing the new thing that is coming.

David: I was about to intervene by contradicting you, but instead you saved yourself with the last expression, because it’s natural to be afraid. Indeed, it would be strange if we were not afraid of the unknown and the unknown that we face. It wouldn’t be healthy. Instead, being paralyzed by fear is, like the rabbit in front of the car headlights, a deadly reaction. 

It’s not enough to let future generations deal with it. Say that we start with school so that young people can grow up, or we invest in a new generation of teachers who will then have the mentality… We’re talking about 50 years if this is the plan. And maybe you won’t believe it, so we will meet in a couple of years, but if it is true that in two years there will be these upheavals and if it is true that in ten years humanoid robots will be produced at a billion units per year, then we don’t have 50 years ahead of us. 

And this is why we all need to get involved, regardless of age, regardless of social or economic position or acquired or presumed prestige, and recognize that we are all in the same situation, side by side. And perhaps even joyfully discover what works, what doesn’t work, with fun, irony, tolerance for error, in order to, if not actually find the answers, which is perhaps very ambitious, know that we are starting to ask the right questions.

Francesca: What is the impact of artificial intelligence on an economic system predominantly made up of small and medium-sized businesses in Italy?

David: So, we need to distinguish between the companies that make these tools, where investments are very important today. We are talking about tens and soon hundreds of billions of dollars needed to lay the foundations that will then give rise to these tools. So no, an Italian SME will not be able to aspire to create tools of this type. A paradigm shift would even be necessary at the European level, where too often we still talk about national champions in one area or another, without realizing that no European nation is ready today to put 100 billion euros into play for a system of artificial intelligence. We can only do this if we think at a European level and not at the level of a single nation. 

But precisely because these tools are based on a pervasive infrastructure that we have built over the last 20-30 years – the cellular networks, the smartphones that we all have in our pockets, the ease of use that we recognize and demand today to the point that when there is a company website or services that regional or national structures offer us, we see and judge when they don’t work, we know when they don’t work – well, this set of circumstances means that everyone can benefit from them. 

So my appeal from earlier, when I said to those half of you who have not yet used it, that you use it, applies not only on an individual and personal level, but also on a corporate level. Many of you here are managers, entrepreneurs, leaders that tens or hundreds or thousands of people follow, give them input. Just as you use personal computers, cell phones, use these tools too. Understanding exactly how is not yet possible, but there are examples in every area, literally any department – legal, marketing, design, planning, sales – each company department can take advantage of it in its own way, in order to understand how it works.

Questions from the audience

Q: Precisely in this room, more than once, the late Domenico De Masi, the President remembered him, the General Secretary remembered him, in one of his many meetings spoke that from now on man, the human species, he would have had more free time. And therefore we had to completely reorganize the lives of us humans, because we would have worked less, definitely less, we would have had much more time available. 

This speech was made by Domenico De Masi 4-5 years ago. Talking today about a past from 4-5 years ago is like talking about these Ice Age issues. If the visionary Domenico De Masi spoke 5 years ago that we would all have more time, I must say that I still have little of this free time, but… Tomorrow, when these billion humanoids will become part of our social life , but not only at work, but also at home, but what will happen? Will we actually live in an era where we will spend our lives between one revelry and another, in short, will we have fun all the time?

David: I don’t know if your grandfather or maybe great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather, but at some point we would definitely get to a point where, if we asked an ancestor of ours, he or she would look at us and say “What are you talking about? But you haven’t worked a day in your life! What you do is not work for me. The job is to dig the earth from dawn to dusk, because if you don’t do it every day you die of hunger.” Because that was the life of all our ancestors, except those who went to fight or those who became priests, but it was one in a thousand. And everyone else worked to ensure that no one or as few people as possible died of hunger. And famines were frequent. 

And today instead we are in a position where 1 or 2% of the population produces 100% of the food. The same thing happened with industrial work, even that radically transformed thanks to automation. And a large portion of service jobs could be transformed by radical automation that makes it leaner, more efficient. Whether we want to do it or not depends on us too. 

I’m trying to find some examples in my mind that are perhaps less indelicate than others, but I understand that in Italy it is possible to send exclusively electronic documents to the courts, except that in recent years a habit of using paper copies has developed of courtesy, which lawyers, judges, prosecutors, etc. exchange among themselves, pretending that it is more elegant, certainly more Bourbon and much more bombastic, but radically less efficient. So today, I would say, they derive a sense of their being from creating useless gibberish. And it will be our choice in the future too. If we want to keep busy because otherwise we go crazy, that will be a choice of direction we can make. 

If, however, we manage to find a meaning in our life that is not that of being engaged in something regardless of its usefulness because we want to feel important, but which we perhaps measure in how much good it does for other people, there will be things to be proud of lots to do together with AI and robots, and together with other people who are passionate about interesting, useful and valuable things. 

Q: Many professions will change, but what will remain is personal care. And so the care makes me think about the relationship, which I think is something that a robot won’t be able to give us. Then can you explain it to me, can they do everything?

David: Here’s an example: European regulation on artificial intelligence excludes applications that manipulate emotions. Yesterday Bill de Blasio spoke to us about mental health and how important it is to remove prejudices and to be able to discuss in a more transparent way the fact of how stress, the pressure of life affects each of us, and how pervasive states of anguish are or even depression. 

Well, democratizing access to profiling and first intervention services for improving mental health through the use of artificial intelligence tools in Europe will be impossible. Because those tools are intended to influence people’s emotions, overturning them from a complex state of progressively negative emotions into positive ones. Works? It does not work? We will never know. And vital access to a psychologist or psychiatrist will be as scarce as it is today. 

However, the exercise that I would like you to do is more radical. Assume that there are no comfortable refuges, niches of preference, or protected niches where human beings who need, because they are weak, this economic protection take refuge, without participating in the explosive increase in economic opportunities in a more open environment. No, imagine that these protections are not there, that anything is possible, and draw a mental picture of your dignified life in that world, realizing how complicated and difficult it is. And so this is what I would like.

Q: In the first slide that you projected there was a sentence written that I must say I find paradoxical to say the least: “Technology created humanity”. I honestly don’t understand it, it seems to me that it was the opposite. But it may be that you do it for reasons… I see that you are extremely optimistic about the future. What do you think about the substitution of silicon for carbon?

David: So, that phrase is certainly provocative. In fact, afterwards, I talked about coevolution, about how technological progress is followed by adaptation. But there is no doubt that biology cannot keep up. That is, 100 thousand years ago, or maybe even a million, we began to use fire and our bacterial flora is such that today we prefer cooked food. However, this does not mean that tomorrow we will have stronger thumbs because our children will be born to fathers who used WhatsApp for a long time.

As far as the evolution of technology is concerned, its rapidity means that traditional evolutionary biology absolutely cannot keep up. I want to go into space and maybe I’ll be able to go into orbit, but no, I want to do interstellar travel. Science fiction dreams of space rockets carrying humans to other stars are childish. And little by little we will get used to the idea that humanity is on Earth today, perhaps tomorrow it will be on Mars, but that it can gradually establish itself among the stars is more unlikely. 

And the number of our progeny of silicon or any other non-biological material will be proportionally enormously higher. That is, we have already colonized Mars today. But there are all the robots on Mars, there are no human beings yet. And this proportion will remain in the Solar System and also among the stars. Maybe instead of being 8 billion people we will be 8 trillion or 8 million billion, it doesn’t matter the number, but the number of complex non-biological organisms – we will call them people or we will not call them people, it is another very complex question – these beings will be in enormously greater numbers. One human against a million of these here or a billion of these here. 

Q: What about the Fermi paradox? 

David: Enrico Fermi together with Oppenheimer, Robert Oppenheimer, some of you may have seen the film, worked on the Manhattan project in the crystal clear desert of New Mexico. They both smoked, every now and then they got bored of the intense work, they went out, it was late at night. And they looked at this sky with incredible images of stars, perhaps the Milky Way, which we already knew then is made up of billions of stars. And I don’t know if they had good enough eyes, but with the naked eye, if you have good eyes, Andromeda is also visible, another galaxy two million light years away, also made up of billions of stars. 

And they wondered, where is everyone? How come we don’t see space teeming with life, teeming with intelligence? And despite the explosion of interest from ufologists who claim that we already have the answers, most people who give the problem a moment’s attention realize that no, we have no answers. There is even a book, “75 Answers to the Fermi Paradox”. I mean where is everyone? Where am I? 

Why does this matter? Because 13 billion years of evolution of the universe have produced what we know to be us, our brain, a kilo of mass that is able to open our eyes and observe the beauty of the universe, marvel at the complexity of life and ask ourselves what what will happen in the future. And we have no example of this happening anywhere else. And that is why our life and even our moment is so unique and precious. Because if we make a misstep, be it through a thermonuclear war, a pandemic we can’t stop or many other disasters, and our adventure stops, the universe goes back 13 billion years. And it is not certain that he will still find the way to produce something like us, that loves, that creates art, that feels wonder. And so our decisions really matter, in a disproportionate, disproportionate way.

Q: Do you think that the so-called universal basic income could be an answer to the lack of work in the future? 

David: People can’t find work for many reasons, and they’re certainly in a very difficult situation. It’s too easy to tell him “But you have to get busy”. Let’s say it’s 10% of people without work. In the south a higher percentage, among young people even higher. Young people, women at midday, worse than worse. When perhaps they reach 50% of the population, if we add filter after filter, it is clear that it is not a question of getting busy. 

On the other hand, even enlisting people to do things just to occupy them and to justify that they are paid is undignified and perhaps even inefficient, because those artfully done jobs are useful yes, useful no, and then maybe the people who do them don’t do them. they do their best because they aren’t good at it, they aren’t prepared or they don’t do it willingly. 

I predict that as has happened in the past arriving in our times, we will continue to increase our degrees of freedom. We will increase the possibility of experimenting and searching to find what works. 

Provocatively, once again, I love the concept of mammoni and in my opinion the whole world should envy the Italian society that includes the concept of mammoni. Think about it. What do the English do? At 16 they throw their children out of the house. Make do! And if they don’t hear from them for the next ten years, never mind, maybe they’ll have made do, or who knows. In Italy at 30 we love them, we cuddle them and tell them “But you’ve tried so many things, try something else”. It’s wonderful, it’s an incredible thing. Obviously I’m exaggerating. But it’s something interesting to discuss and understand.

Q: How do you imagine the villains of the future in this virtuous, perfectible, highly intelligent world in 10 years?

David: It is guaranteed that we will not live in a utopia where we all love each other, where there is no conflict.

No matter how many resources we have, we will be able to find limits to what is possible, and where those limits collide with something else, there will be conflict. It will be very important to find better methods than the ones we have now to resolve conflicts. Resorting to wars should not be something we need, and in the future this will be even more important, precisely because the power that we will have at our disposal between artificial intelligence and robots, whether humanoid or not, will be extraordinary power. Using it for violent purposes, of violent conflict, will be too destructive.