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Aspen at Expo - A conversation on human mind and innovation

Food Security, Nutrition and Global Health
Milan, 08/07/2015, International Workshop
Audio-video clips

By way of setting the tone for this International Workshop, figures were cited showing that, in 2014, 350 million PCs and 320 million tablets were sold, and that, in the next five years, there will be some 200 billion web-connected devices. The latest devices – it was observed – are able to learn our needs and preferences, enabling increasingly personalized feedback, with artificial intelligence continuing to make great leaps forward. It was stressed, however, that it is not just machines that are learning from people – humans too have ended up being shaped by their devices. Although smartphones did not exist until 15 years ago, average users now check their cellphone displays 150 times a day, and concentration spans have reduced from 12 to 8 seconds over the last 10 years.

This was seen as just the beginning, with devices not currently in existence soon to become a reality. For instance, there will shortly be no need to grab hold of a device to perform a task, which will be carried out through increasingly more proactive interaction with ambient intelligence. In addition, with wearable technologies, such as bracelets and shoes with sensors, the wearer’s intentions will be perceived even more naturally, so that a facial expression will suffice for a task to be completed.

It was acknowledged, however, that these fascinating and in some respects disquieting scenarios pose questions regarding how the relationship between humans and ever-more sophisticated machines (controlled by adaptive algorithms) will change. Users will need to keep up to speed with systems capable of holding all the world’s knowledge, and will particularly need to ensure that they do not lose their aptitude for creativity when swamped by big data and the internet of things.

Machines will be able to do everything except think, said Lord Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace, considered the first programmer in history (and one of the key figures in The Innovators, the latest book by Walter Isaacson, President of The Aspen Institute in the US). Computers are also not curious. Yet it was curiosity which drove Leonardo Da Vinci to enquire into light and into why the sky is blue though the air is transparent, just as it prompted Einstein, five centuries later, to answer this question with the tools of his time.

Nor – it was stressed – can machines think outside the box, or use imagination. Intuition enables solutions to be found, and a hundred years ago allowed that mental leap which led Einstein to identify gravitational acceleration and force, resulting in the development of his Theory of Relativity. While some of the functional traits of the human brain can be replicated by machines, the combination of ingenuity and technology typical of humans will increasingly grow greater than artificial intelligence. In this regard, the participants considered the nature of the approach that the best minds in history – running from Leonardo da Vinci to Steve Jobs – all had in common. The consensus was that it consisted of a conjunction of science and art. Jobs, for instance, had a liberal arts education, not a scientific background. As a young man, he loved poetry and dance, then he realized that those who combined the arts and sciences, as did Leonardo (his Vitruvian Man being the embodiment of this synthesis), would be the ones to create value in the digital age. Passion, which also drives humanity to embark on great ventures, cannot be replicated by machines, nor can beauty, which – it was recalled – Jobs sought to create in every corner of his home, and in every facet of his computers.

Just as Jobs’ garden fence had to be well-painted at the front and rear, the motherboards of the first Macs had to be well-ordered and visually pleasing, even though they were hidden within the devices. Jobs felt that his technicians should be proud of what they created, and made them engrave their names inside the computers, just like artists. At this point in the discussions, the participants wondered what Leonardo might have made of the innovations of the digital age, of the data contained in a chip, and of devices that talk to each other and speak with humans through voice recognition and assistance software, like Siri and Cortana (developed by Apple and Microsoft respectively). He would probably – it was conjectured – have been fascinated and amused, and come up with devices even more successful than smartphones. It was suggested that the role of technology today is to contextualize information, making life better for humans. Personal assistants like Siri store data and make it available on demand, providing personalized and contextualized help. Cortana’s use of a home address to advise the time needed to reach the next scheduled appointment, taking into account traffic, was cited as another example of how technology is making the world a better place to live.