Technological progress has always improved quality of life by giving people more free time, reducing working hours and increasing individual productivity and the resulting purchasing power. And so when we talk about enabling technologies and their development, we often look at the potential benefits for production processes, products, the economy, and the job opportunities that will be generated in sectors that are currently unknown. That’s how it’s been so far, but will it be so in the future too? We discussed it with Nicola Intini, manager of the Bosch site in Ravensburg and member of the Federmeccanica I4.0 national task force. “Considering the speed of change and the widening of the potential limits on the development of the so-called artificial intelligence of machines, there will be an increasing need to discuss rules, ethics and policies for the development of machines. This is by no means a new subject, having been raised repeatedly by futurologists, academics and social partners, but it now requires an effort to be made that is commensurate with the exponential growth of enabling technologies.”
Do we therefore need a vision that will guide society and politics so that humans always remain at the center of development, even in the face of the questions posed by autonomous machines?
The European Parliament is discussing the need to identify guidelines on issues such as responsibility, privacy, legal classification and insurance of robotic devices, with the Scuola Superiore S. Anna of Pisa as one of the main contributors. These topics will be increasingly central to technical questions on the development of the technologies themselves. Building on the Japanese experience, for humans to retain a central role, we must focus on creating a Society 5.0 in order to create a system that balances economic progress with the resolution of social problems through a high degree of integration between cyberspace and physical space. Consider, for example, the problems associated with the aging population and their inability to perform certain activities, both work and non-work.”
But to do this do we need to take a step back because the history of technology runs parallel with the history of automation?
Capital has increased the ability of humans to perform work, thanks to resources that have supported their working skills or replaced them first with mechanical and then with electromechanical, mechatronic and IT systems. Just look at the division of labor in Italy: while in 1860 almost 70 percent of workers were engaged in the primary sector (agriculture, livestock farming, hunting, forestry), in the years from 1950 to 1970 the percentage dropped rapidly from 40 percent to less than 20 percent thanks to advances in the mechanization of agriculture. Jobs in agriculture were halved, but at the same time automation produced a surge in the need for industrial labor, which in parallel grew from 30 percent to over 50 percent, accompanied by an equally vigorous growth in employment in the services sector. Since 1970, a similar phenomenon has occurred in industry, with the advent of information technology applied to production. New microprocessors were able to perform more sophisticated operations completely on their own by replacing factory workers who carried out repetitive operations. At the same time, work in the service sector was growing to fill new needs.
Will history repeat itself in the future? Do today's technologies also allow jobs that were deemed to be sheltered, such as white-collar work, to be automated?
It is reasonable to predict that new and as yet unimagined jobs will become part of daily life. A kind of “neo-quaternary”, distinct from the use normally made of the term “quaternary”. This includes all the activities connected with intelligent robotization or with the automation of processes that normally require discernment and analysis and decision-making skills. Just as a provocation, it could simply be space tourism, legal assistance 4.0 or YouTubers. Jobs not even invented yet. In any case, there will be a drop in the typical occupations of the traditional service sector, as a result of their automation, and a parallel growth in the new neo-quaternary jobs necessary to generate this new wave of automation and at the same time fulfill new needs. But a “pentenary” can also be envisaged, i.e. work done by robots whose added value will benefit humanity. This could be defined as Robotic Full Time Equivalent (RFTE), a robotic unit that can replace an equivalent human full time.
A scenario of great changes. What should be expect next?
New business models will be increasingly widespread and the concept of ownership is also already changing. The connection between objects and the continuous processing of the transmitted data will allow you to use things and pay for the service based on actual use. If I use a means of transport for two hours, it will no longer be necessary to own it. After all, a car remains stationary for most of its time. Behind simple gestures there is a complex world of sensors, geolocations, data analysis, database crossovers and everything else needed to keep these businesses up and running. But if you look closely, we’re not talking about the future: it's already happening!
All positive, but the role of man and that of machines is at stake. A kind of new parallel biology?
We have created sensors that imitate our senses and now greatly expand them. We have created the connections between them thanks to data networks. We have instilled intelligence in devices, simulating the basic nervous system, the one that keeps us alive. Now we are getting closer to simulating the higher faculties of man, such as abstract thinking, understanding, discernment, using big data, deep learning, AI simulating the cerebral cortex and its higher activities. At the moment we lack the layer of emotions: that incredible interaction between the cerebral cortex and the endocrine system that makes us feel fear, enthusiasm, attraction, repulsion, hatred, love. Today artificial intelligence systems capable of self-learning show that they are prone to the same danger as human beings, that is, to be influenced by prejudices or “beliefs”.
And this is where the ethical problem arises. New rules are needed. A new ethic for machines?
The problem of Robo-ethics will be raised with ever greater vigor. What will machines and robots, in their most diverse material and immaterial forms, be able and unable to do? What will be the responsibilities deriving from their actions? An autonomous vehicle will be able to detect obstacles in its path and will be able to make decisions much faster than humans can do. In the vast majority of cases, there will be a significant increase in road safety, since all mistakes resulting from fatigue and distractions will be eliminated. The vehicle itself can also correct anomalies such as the sudden puncture of a tire and so on. But when the problem arises of choosing between two situations that put different people at risk, which criterion will need to be used to calculate the algorithm? They are big, terrible and equally fascinating problems. Today everything is entrusted to humans and their decisions, and this is the basis on which rules have been set in the fields of law and insurance, but soon there will be a problem of setting guidelines on these matters that will probably be of greater relevance than the development of technology itself, because the development of a set of laws and values will require a balance to be struck between rules, restrictions and development policies in order to keep humans at the center.
Are we moving towards a society 5.0?
If humans remains at the center, they will also be the greatest beneficiaries of the new technologies, with machines that will offer increasingly flexible and personalized services. It will be a matter of continuing what humanity has historically done in the past, redeploying and redistributing the benefits of technology to large sections of the population. So keeping humans at the center should not be a wish or an ethical indication, but a real work program. The Japanese are once again the pioneers in this respect. Driven by a demographic trend that has resulted in them being the oldest population in the world, they have been the first to announce the creation of a super smart society, Society 5.0. While the Industry 4.0 program focuses heavily on the automation and digitalization of production processes across the entire value chain, the Japanese initiative aims to improve all areas of work and our lives. Think of mobility for the elderly, health care, cities that adapt traffic, heating and lighting according to changing environmental conditions. A new super smart society indeed.
But what obstacles will need to be overcome?
There are two major difficulties: one linked to man, the other linked to resources. Let's start with the second: even today only a very small fraction of the energy consumed is produced from renewable sources or ones that have no impact on the greenhouse effect. Well over 90 percent of the energy needed for technological development is produced from traditional sources such as coal, oil, gas. It is clear that the impact on greenhouse gas emissions on the one hand and limited resources on the other are barriers to the situation evolving as suggested above. The other problem relates more to humans themselves, to the benefit of whom these technologies should be directed: the speed of change in all life systems has become such that generational change is no longer even remotely sufficient to keep up with the continuous innovations. While this is already evident in the education system, where, after a few years, the notions acquired by teachers become obsolete and inadequate to train young people in new technologies, it is even truer for people over a certain age, for whom difficulties begin increasingly early in life, as they lag behind an accelerating world. This creates a risk of strong polarization between those who “keep up” and those who do not with all the economic and social consequences that this entails, while also leading to a sharp increase in mental illnesses, with anxiety in first place.
The author: Luigia Ierace