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Artificial Intelligence and a new generation of opportunities

Digital format, 25/11/2021, Conference for the Aspen Junior Fellows

On November 24, 2021, the Italian government adopted a 2022-2024 strategic artificial intelligence program jointly drafted by the ministries of university and research, of economic development and of technological innovation and digital transition.  In the global race for technological development, the program traces a roadmap for policies aimed at promoting the country’s competitiveness by strengthening national level professional competences and research in the field of artificial intelligence.

AI has myriad applications, and is sure to have an impact on nearly every field and sector. A prime example is the medical sector, where artificial intelligence can help with both diagnostics and surgery, but also in industry and its automated processes and the economic/financial world where correlating enormous volumes of data is already preventing fraud, pinpointing scenarios and making predictions never before possible. Other priority areas are in legislation and the public administration where the introduction of advanced technology aims to improve the quality of citizen services and boost bureaucratic efficiency.

Application is going to be pervasive, which calls for deep consideration of the human/machine interface and of the ethics and reliability of the technology itself. Given the international public debate rife with concerns over the medium- to long-term impact of AI, it is legitimate to point out the fact that the algorithms and the technological systems being implemented today are heavily dependent on human input. These technologies are capable of processing and consolidating huge masses of data and of providing answers to complex questions posed by specialized operators based on knowledge strictly pertinent to human experience. That is why, as opposed to all those dystopic fantasies that envision humans replaced with machines in almost every function, it is more realistic to expect a gradual transition in the current work world where AI complements professional roles by performing computational, analytic and predictive tasks – not to mention those requiring pure physical/mechanical brawn – that are beyond human ability.

To seize the opportunities offered by technological development it is surely going to be necessary to strengthen national skills and close the existing gap between supply and demand for technical and professional competences. A current shortage of 350,000 specialists has been estimated, and the gap is destined to grow. The key lies in training the workers of the future so as to be able to meet innovation goals but, even more importantly, to make the country technologically competitive on this rapidly evolving international stage.

The 2022-2024 strategic program is a concrete response to that need. It outlines training and academic programs that support research and the application of those systems in various strategic settings. Italian universities have already partly updated their curricula by adding ad hoc degree programs geared to these concerns, but there is still much to be done. In addition to the training of data scientists, IT professionals and engineers, the broader diffusion is needed of basic skills in all courses of study and professional training given the pervasive and transversal nature of AI applications.

In order to mitigate the disruptive power of artificial intelligence, as it becomes an integral part of society, it is important that the topic also be discussed in terms of ethics. If it is, indeed, impossible to oppose innovation in this global world, technology must be developed and managed according to ethical principles acceptable with a view to ensuring its use as an instrument for collective progress. The issue is a complex one that calls for a set of both legislative and social rules that permit its anthropocentric and trustworthy implementation. The more reliable machine-generated predictions and decisions are, the more the algorithms on which they are programmed must be transparent, accessible and free of prejudice. To that end, needed is a more highly skilled and inclusive workforce capable of using its language and abilities for discerning and analyzing to translate the complexity of thought and multiplicity of viewpoints and experiences that characterize the human world. Among the strategic program’s objectives is this:  to foster the access and employment of a larger number of women, young people and international professionals. The goals of the common good must remain a priority if technological progress is to coincide with the advancement of the nation.