Artificial intelligence, ethics and rules: interview with Luciano Violante, President of Fondazione Leonardo

09 December 2019

Fondazione Leonardo Civiltà delle Macchine was the main actor of a two-day international conference discussing the ethical and legal implications of the growing use of artificial intelligence technologies. On November 21 and 22, at the Italian Chamber of Deputies, the world of research, government, industry, met with the objective of fostering a debate on the ethical code of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Italy, stressing the need and benefits of a more formalised legal framework.

The aim is to develop a new technological humanism that preserves the centrality of man in the “Era of machines” through principles and guidelines built by public authorities together with manufacturers and digital consumers.

We explored the main themes of the conference (security, finance, medicine and justice), with the president of Fondazione Leonardo Civiltà delle Macchine, Luciano Violante. A jurist by profession, very mindful about the delicate subject of rules, he immediately clears the field with an all-round analysis of the transformation of the company from analogue to digital, taking into account both advantages and risks:

"I've been a lawyer for over 50 years and, to tell you the truth, I don't believe in the thaumaturgical effect of the rules. What really matters is education, not rules. If somebody doesn’t steal, it’s not because there’s a rule that says he shouldn’t steal, but because he was taught not to. Rules come after training and education, or remain a futile exercise. Therefore the question of educating on the use of these tools is fundamental ".

The conference presented a good opportunity to disseminate, educate and train. Before entering the intricacies of digital democracy and the role of governance and business, Luciano Violante points out that the Italian Ministry of Education is taking this issue seriously and that they will work together to cascade some of the results of this conference. From preschool to high school awards are being organised building on one key word: ‘think’, use your ability to discern and understand, always. Because important conflicts lurk behind the digital development of our societies: between conservation and innovation; between technocentrism and anthropocentrism:

"In our world - explains Luciano Violante - two very different societies coexist, our generation’s analogue society and the digital one, which belongs to the generation under 30. These two societies show deep differences. In the digital society time and space disappear. Analogue society, on the other hand, still lives in time and space. The analogue society  is bound for extinction and digital, will rule. The issue of how we are going to deal with this new society is definitely not marginal. There certainly is a conflict between conservation and innovation. But we must preserve our values while innovating the technology".

What about the dualism between technocentrism and anthropocentrism?

"The problem is man, or more specifically the main role that men should play, how they should always have the possibility to pull the plug. It's complicated, because while in the past you would meet mediators and these could  convince you of political or social opinions – in short they didn't tell you which toothpaste you had to buy, but only why you had to buy one –  today we have new mediators, hidden, you don’t really know who they are. So the problem of anthropocentrism is also the one of freedom. And AI must be a space of freedom not of new colonization. Unfortunately we are facing a voluntary colonization, in the sense that we are willing to hand over our data, with the difference that if the State asks for them we say no, while if the same request comes from private powers, we give them away. But we must be careful, because in the digital society a digital state could rise".

What would this entail?

"A State that is opaque and where citizens are transparent, whereas our democracies are based on opaque citizens and transparent public powers. Why should we discuss these issues now? Because we are still on time to establish shared rules, working together: major players, governments, hi-tech companies, network players and the academic world. If we manage to agree a set of rules we will be able to proceed smoothly. If not, we will come to a tug-of-war in which surveillance or marketing will prevail over everything else.
With Artificial intelligence we are all vulnerable in front of unidentified players who in turn know everything about us. Hence the need to promptly build principles and rules, and, while welcoming the good of its possibilities also warn of its risks. Today’s international world is dominated by tariffs, sanctions and interference. We can’t do much about sanctions and tariffs but, if we teach people to carefully read and understand interferences will become much less influential".

The world lately seems to be in the throes of a technological frenzy that is heavily conditioning citizens...

"In different countries what we see are coordinated mass movements without a clear representation: they do not have a leaders but these exist and thrive, through technology alone. Take, for example, the recent movement in Italy called the ‘sardines’ which has brought together in a very short time and in several cities a huge number of people. Gathering 15,000 people in the same place would once have required several meetings, word of mouth, pamphlets and calls. What I’m saying is that life is communication, when communication tools change, life changes".

Businesses and governance, a topic of primary importance in the so-called cybersphere...

"I strongly believe that a company who sets itself apart from the community and from its stakeholders is a dangerous one. A company that is transparent, that builds relationships with customers, stakeholders and the communities in which they operate, that is a company that will ultimately welcome rules and foster change".

In conclusion, you always stress the importance of sharing the great opportunity that comes from this phase of technological humanism. In practice, how can we apply this approach?

"I think we need to look at what is happening in our society. We’re beginning to talk about these issues in schools. And I believe that a company like Leonardo, which has invested significantly in this, has now raised the problem of the connection with society. We see a trend here, using all the tools we have internally and externally. In January, we will meet with the presidents of the Enel and Eni Foundations with an idea: what can the foundations of these big actors do together? The goal is to create a synergy.  
If three major European players start discussing through their foundations about what can be done, I believe that we can get important answers. I insist, we don’t need to write a law, but rather set up a process so that the rules will follow. We’re just at the dawn of this new era, but for the future I would like to raise awareness of issues and problems that are on the table. Then we can take the next step. What we do not need is governments taking strong positions that if not shared cannot be applied. We are looking at laying down the tracks, but we need to make sure that awareness is raised while we’re laying down those tracks. We need to do it through careful thinking because the freedom of the next generation will depend on this".