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Luciano Floridi and the technological gambit

Investing in innovation and sustainability for long-term benefits.

by Davide Perillo
21 September 2020
12 min read
by Davide Perillo
21 September 2020
12 min read

"It's like a gambit in chess, you know? You sacrifice a pawn right away, in the hope that you’ll get an advantage that will help you win later. We’re doing the same thing with the environment and technology. We’re consuming more energy, but today's consumption can help reduce the impact in the future."

The bond between environment and technology

The words of Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at Oxford University, where he is also Director of the Digital Ethics Lab. Professor Floridi is one of the sharpest observers of the infosphere and onlife, expressions coined by him that, unsurprisingly, have entered common parlance to describe a world in which digital and physical, online and life, have become increasingly intertwined, fused, difficult to distinguish and separate.

The Teatro Parenti in Milan has organized three meetings, the first two, held last February, saw a sold-out theatre in the hi-tech and philosophy discussion. The last and final one, postponed due to the lockdown, will be on digital utopia and the relationship between the green and the blue. It intends to recall the title of Floridi’s latest book, published by Raffaello Cortina– signifying the environment and technology, which very close have, material interrelationship. Even when it comes to energy, as ICT now absorbs more than 10% of global energy consumption and by 2030 it will be well over that percentage (source: Enerdata).

"It has an enormous impact," says Floridi. "Even in these months of lockdowns and slowdowns. Think about remote working. A lot of people say, ‘well, we're doing good for the environment if we stay home,’ but that's not true. Working from home still means keeping the light on, the computer, the heating, getting groceries delivered...". In other words, consumption shifts rather than falls. "But it's digital technology that burns so much. Transactions in bitcoin, for example, require an amount of energy that is equivalent to 20% of Italian demand, or the total energy usage of the Czech Republic. Machine learning and algorithms use staggering amounts of power. But the good news is that all these terabytes and terawatts should improve the overall situation over time – if we are smart."

D: That’s the gambit. You call it calculated risk...

R: Sure. That’s the nature of digital: it lets you to do more with less. The advantages, in the long run, massively offset the initial disadvantage, if the game is played well. And Artificial Intelligence can have a big impact here. There is a whole swathe of unnecessary consumption and all sorts of waste –business, commercial and structural– which is just waiting to be slashed.

D: Can you give us some examples?

R: I'll give you two. One is from a few years ago, but it's so impressive that it really demonstrates the idea. When Google took the algorithms of DeepMind, the famous software that beat the chess and Go grand masters, and used them to optimise its electricity consumption, it saw a reduction of over 30%. That’s incredible. The other is electric cars, on which there is a very interesting dialectic.

D: How do you mean?

R: Early enthusiasts said: "Great, they run on electricity so they don't pollute." And then they started to question themselves. "Yes, but electricity depends on how you produce it: if you use coal..." Right. But there's a third step. You can charge the electric car whenever you want. In fact, you usually do it at night. Lowering the curve of energy demand peaks, by spreading it over other times brings enormous advantages. Here in Oxford, at home, I already have the two meters: one for night and one for day. If you're careful to shift consumption, and you do it on a scale of millions of users, that makes an extraordinary difference.

D: So that's for consumption. But what about energy producers? How –and how much– does digital help?

R: The issue for energy companies is not whether to focus on alternative sources, but when and how to do it. It's the future. The question is how fast it's coming and how to shape it. Of course, they have to invest in R&D and diversify their portfolio relentlessly, bit by bit. Not only to protect the business, but to play their social role to the full. Only large companies have the know-how, the capital, the interest and a long-term strategy to succeed. You don’t find these four things anywhere else. The state has the capital and the interest, perhaps. But it doesn’t have the know-how, nor, much less, the foresight. I think this shifts the central focus for Big Oil from "they have to do it to save their own skin" to "let’s ask them to do it because they're the only ones who actually can do it". It's an exciting challenge, in a space where there's a lot to be won.

D: But why would the marriage between green and blue be "the wedding of the century", as you said a while ago?

R: Because the alliance benefits both of them. Green needs blue to survive. We need technology that can maintain and improve the standard of living around the world, without destroying the environment. Digital is the only way to do more with less. It’s something that has never happened before. In return, green is good for blue. Even today, too many managers still see sustainability as a cost, but that's where the business is. Green is not the icing on the cake: it is the cake. That point of view has to be turned on its head. But it’s a hard change of mentality.

We need technology that can maintain and improve the standard of living around the world, without destroying the environment

Luciano Floridi - Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford

D: Same question again. Can you give some examples?

R: Think of the world of municipal waste. It's a huge business, because of its necessity, the demand for it and the funds it requires. And because of the absence of giant corporations. Investing in waste recovery to produce energy would generate great margins. Then, once these technologies have been developed, they could be exported and help to restore competitiveness. If you try to compete with China by making nails or pencils, you won’t make it. But on these sorts of things, you can compete. Of course, you have to understand the scale of the challenge.

D: And probably be willing to change structure, organisation...

R: We have to start thinking in terms of archipelagos rather than monoliths. The big businesses of the future will be surrounded by a small galaxy of start-ups, micro-enterprises, initiatives, training schools... Eni, for example, is very active in education and project investment. Now, imagine a company like that makes a structural switch in perspective to say: I’ll finance ten start-ups because if even one of them develops a technology that works, I’ll get back everything and I’ll make money too.

D: Lately there has been a lot of focus on the obvious problems created by the digital divide, the gap between the digital “haves” and “have-nots”. But is there a risk that this fracture will also exacerbate an ecological divide? Those who are left behind in technology will be left very far behind in terms of protecting the environment...

R: It’s more than a risk, it's a certainty. You only have to see the health reports of countries that continue to use mainly coal. The cost in terms of ecology and human suffering, of being on the wrong side of the divide, is extraordinary. But there is an important point to consider here. While, in general, the technological gap is a battle between winners and losers, on sustainability there is a chance of a win-win situation. If you make a profit with new technology that exploits recycling, it's true that someone else won’t get those profits because they’ve been left behind. But it's also true that they are gaining, too, because we're all better off with recycling. That’s another thing that’s different to the past. There is a chance to stop thinking in terms of just a market war, but of shared victories. That, too, would be a revolution.

D: You say that the infosphere needs synthetic environmentalism. What does that mean exactly?

R: In the old approach, where sustainability was only a cost, environmentalism has always been seen as a burden. It’s an approach based on sacrifices, of saying no, of returning to the past... There was an environmentalism of that kind, it's undeniable, and it had its reasons too. I’m proposing a different approach, a new generation: an Environmentalism 2.0, which understands that digital technology works for the environment. It can succeed in making this synthesis between the infosphere and the biosphere. And it can help open up a new worldview of a rich circular economy.

Giving a voice to this future, regenerating hope in some way, is more than a necessity, it’s an obligation

Luciano Floridi - Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford

D: What do you mean by "new" and "rich"?

R: The economy has been circular throughout almost all of human history. So often we find it hard to find traces of the past, because in the past nothing was thrown away. When I was a kid, I thought: "But where have all the swords of the Roman legions gone? Why are so few of them found in excavations?" Then I realised. When a sword broke, they'd melt it down and do something else with it. And it's been like that for every object, for centuries. Humans have always lived in a poor circular economy. It is only in the latest part of our history, the last couple of centuries, that we have moved on to a rich linear economy: you buy, you consume, you throw away. Well, now we can take the third step, restoring circularity while maintaining wealth.

D: Let’s go back to the need for an overall long-term vision. In The Green and The Blue you talk about just that. You suggest some "naive ideas to improve politics". What is needed to help this drive towards a different kind of sustainability?

R: Three things: education, investment and trust. Education, first and foremost. If we continue to trend downwards, especially in Italy, we will never be able to implement these ideas. Soft skills are great, no doubt. But we need people who know maths, statistics, computer science, biochemistry... the basics, you know. Then, we need trust. That’s a deciding factor.

D: Why?

R: It’s crucial for societal cohesion, to plan something together. I'm talking about trust in ourselves, in each other and in institutions. If you don't have trust in yourself, you're not going anywhere. But you have to trust the other person too, at least to start with. Someone comes to me with an idea and I say, “Give it a try. I trust you.” Later maybe I’ll change my mind, but the initial attitude must be receptive. That’s very important, because it also allows you to take responsibility, to grow. Equally, it’s important to restore trust in institutions. Or rather, in organisations: not just the state and the public administration, but also business, the world of industry. Without that initial moment of trust and commitment, you'll achieve nothing: you can't work together.

D: And investment? I don't think you’re just talking about capital.

R: No. We have to invest in the future. I always say the future pays, but it doesn't vote. It pays for the things we don't want to do, or that we did wrong: the debts, the short-sighted choices. Future generations will be affected by them all. But they don't vote, they don't have a voice. Giving a voice to this future, regenerating hope in some way, is more than a necessity, it’s an obligation. Otherwise, we are in real danger of wasting the most important reserve of energy we have.

D: What’s that?

R: The will to do. I can sense it when I’m out and about, talking, meeting people. There is hunger and thirst for a constructive positivity about the future, about what to do and where to get stuck in. There's a lot of people saying, "I'm in." Just think of Italy. We have about seven million people volunteering. More than one in ten Italians. The energy to do good, all together, is there. But you have to use it, not waste it.