- “Are machines intelligent? It depends on what is meant by the word intelligence.”
- “To say that certain things should not circulate on Facebook is not censorship, it is the protection of what belongs to everyone.”
The speed at which the world is being transformed leaves us perplexed. Faced with this situation, we urgently need answers. Luciano Floridi (Rome, 1964) is one of those who are dedicated to seeking them. “Humanity has never seen a planet on the verge of collapse which it itself is destroying. The digital transformation is something new. There is much to do and a lot to understand,” reflects this professor of Philosophy of Ethics and Information at the University of Oxford. Floridi continually creates analogies to offer new keys for reading reality. “Imagine a race between three athletes. The first (technological development) goes much faster than the second (legislation and social norms) and faster still than the third (our understanding and our behaviour),” he said as an example in 2010.
Q. What is the current state of this race between technology, politicians and society?
A. The race has not slowed down, but there is less distance between the participants… and perhaps this has complicated everything even more. Technological innovation continues its development: ten years ago there was not so much talk about algorithms and artificial intelligence. There has also been a leap forward in legislation, and there is far more interest in this issue and much more social pressure. A kind of crisis has opened up among the big digital operators such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. Partly it is due to their failures, partly also because they see that the future is made of social responsibility and they try to improve. In the technological environment there is a much greater presence of social and ethical issues than ten years ago.
Q. You claim that we live the fourth revolution of human thought after those that were due to the discoveries of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. In this context, does philosophy become more necessary?
A. Philosophy today is more necessary than it has been for many years. In reality, it is always necessary, but over the centuries it has experienced ups and downs: when it’s up it’s because it deals with important issues and when it’s down it’s because it’s preoccupied with its own problems. Today it has to speak about the world to the world. The great current philosophical problem is the sum of a political and democratic crisis, plus the digital transformation that is changing everything and also an appalling environmental crisis.
Q. What solutions can it offer?
A. My job is not only to push philosophy to deal with these issues, but also to do so in a systematic way. In other words, to stress that the digital and the natural can be forces that work together. If you consider it as something that can create solutions to the big problems, then it becomes possible to orient yourself.
Q. Nowadays, who is interested in information ethics?
A. It interests everyone, but for different reasons. Those who do digital business are interested because doing good business also means doing it within a society that approves of you and supports you. Society is now more concerned with its own vulnerabilities, for example in the topic of data processing, or what impact artificial intelligence will have on the labour market and how all of that will influence our decisions. There is more fear, sometimes a little unjustified, but it exists. The political world is interested because it feels the push from the other two forces, although I suspect that if it didn’t have to deal with ethical issues it would be delighted… but it cannot stop dealing with those issues.
Q. We live in an age of perplexity. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
A. At the beginning it’s a good thing because being perplexed means having understood that things have changed and that one has some doubts. Rather, I think that it’s something essential. Designing new solutions involves opening up new questions. But if one stays in that state, then the constructive part is missing: if we are stuck in perplexity, in a stagnant phase that doesn’t allow us to move forward, then it’s a disaster.
Q. And how do these companies that lead the digital transformation take this perplexity?
A. For big companies this perplexity is something unexpected. And it is surprising, because all companies go through an adolescent phase, the start-up, and then a period of maturity and one of aging. Digital companies have already passed the adolescent phase—some already have more than half a century of history. Some reinvent themselves, while others do not. But if in the political sphere it is more complicated to see the way out of perplexity, in the case of business it is easier to guess.
Q. What is that way out?
A. It is precisely to understand that there comes a time when large companies assume a role of social responsibility, of good corporate citizenship. Until very recently, the CEO of Twitter told us: “I don’t take sides, freedom of speech…” This is too easy. You have to play on the field of values, of commitment, of the ability to offer a healthier environment from the point of view of information and interaction. It does not take a genius for that. We gave them the map a long time ago; it’s not that they don’t know where they have to go, it’s that they don’t want to go there; or they want to go slowly. This is very surprising.
Q. Do you think machines can now pass the Turing test?
A. Unfortunately, that test is only valid in one direction: if the machine doesn’t pass it, it means that it’s not intelligent; but this doesn’t mean that if it passes it, it’s intelligent. It’s a little like the driving test: it doesn’t mean that if you pass it, you now know how to drive. Are machines intelligent? I don’t know. It also depends on how the word intelligence is interpreted. I think the atmosphere around the question is very polluted. There is a lot of fuss about it, but in a few years all this commotion will calm down. And the risk will not be that who knows what may have happened with the arrival of artificial intelligence, but rather that after having been promised all kinds of things, in reality we are so disappointed that we decide to also close off those paths that are possible. Instead it is a very powerful and very useful tool that can help a lot if used well. But we always talk about machines, about technology.
Q. And how can artificial intelligence make a difference?
A. Today we are very focused on the replacement of human labour, but in that I see a distraction. We are always obsessed about ourselves. Where it can really make a difference is in the management of complexity: there are many things that we cannot do today because we don’t have enough tools. The issue will not be so much if you can replace the driver of a car… I don’t think it will be like that. But we will finally have management tools for some of the big problems that we have, and it’s there that artificial intelligence will open up new pathways in an extraordinary way.
Q. In what areas will these perspectives open up?
A. For example, in the area of materials technologies. The creation of new materials requires calculations of extraordinary complexity in the fields of chemistry, biology and physics, and the identification of structures in a way that today we have no chance of managing. It’s as if the problems were nails of different sizes, from very small ones to ones as big as this room, and the solutions were all hammers. If I have only small hammers, driving in the big nails will be impossible. Artificial intelligence has given us bigger hammers, not only in that area, but also in medicine, in geography or in meteorology.
Q. What are these hammers doing?
A. Computer problems are classified according to the complexity they represent in terms of memory and time. Now one can find new solutions in a functional and economically sustainable way; it’s no longer necessary to keep a computer running for three years to make a complex calculation. In this subject we are doing incredible things, like when we discovered the possibility of flying. They are opportunities that in other times not even the most powerful man in the world could have imagined. If I had money for an investment, I would bet on these issues.
Q. How does your most recent philosophical concept, that of ‘semantic capital’, enter into this context of transformation?
A. Semantic capital is what gives meaning to our existence. It is the meaning of life, of who I am and of the role I have in society. My hope is that in the next ten or twenty years this discourse will be taken much more seriously and that it can guide our socio-political decisions. Interest and hope are the two drivers of human motivation. These two engines should allow the aircraft of semantic capital to take off. But in reality we are flying alone thanks to just one of them. All the modern era, starting from the twentieth century, has been based on private interest. The construction of society is based on the protection of individual interest. And the social project is a metaproject that satisfies those individual projects. But how are we organizing ourselves from the social point of view?
Q. What can we hope for?
A. When I speak of hope, I speak of a broader social project, in which the protection of semantic capital becomes an issue that must be addressed together. For example, when it is said that certain things should not circulate on Facebook, it is not censorship, it’s the protection of semantic capital, which belongs to everyone. In a public park one cannot do whatever one wants. The park is for everyone: there are children, young people and seniors. It’s not about limiting the freedom of individuals, but about understanding in which context that freedom is exercised.
Q. What has happened to our semantic capital today?
A. Imagine it as a small flower that needs to be protected, because if it’s left too long in the open, it quickly dies. The digital dimension seized millions of small pieces of semantic capital. That exposure to the elements hurt. The media, for example, literally opened all the windows and everything came in. It’s not that fake news didn’t used to exist, but that it had less impact. I don’t see in that something negative at all costs; certain transformations that hurt a bit are useful for growing. In the past, the ways of interpreting life and the world could be much more reduced, more parochial. But this growing pain hurts; it’s like when a wisdom tooth appears.
Q. Could political phenomena such as the victories of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, Brexit or the rise of Italian populism be symptoms of this growing pain?
A. This growing pain will not last just a few months: the winter of politics will be a long winter, and I think we have not seen the worst yet. In the next European elections, for example, there will be a further squeeze of nationalism, populism and sovereignty. However, as we said before, everything would be shorter if we had an exit view. Not everything is strategy, but there is that too. There is no denying that there is a socio-political capacity to design the future, although if we had it a little more pronounced, we could leave before this winter takes hold. My frustration is that I don’t see politicians meeting the challenge of the situation. There are none.
Q. You have said on past occasions that you are clear that the most appropriate system of government is representative democracy, and not direct democracy.
A. At least from a theoretical point of view, there is no doubt that representative democracy is a much better solution. The principle of democracy is validated when there is a separation between who has the power and who manages it: if the person who manages it does a good job, they can repeat it, if not, it is given to another. Now digital technologies allow, at least theoretically, a direct, true and effective democracy… if we wanted it. Thus, having a representative democracy has become a choice; it is no longer a necessity. And we have to choose it.
Q. Are we in time to recover a solid representative democracy?
A. Politics has a short memory. It thinks of today and tomorrow, not of five or ten years down the road. And we, the voters, do the same. On the other hand, demonstrating the value of representative democracy is a long-term issue. If we give priority to the immediate and to direct democracy, that will not happen. Rather, one enters a kind of dictatorship of the majority. As a rule, history usually resolves this dialectic with disasters, and it ends badly. I hope we don’t need a smack from history to get us back on track.