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Focus on industry: human capital and artificial intelligence

Venice, 12/10/2018 - 14/10/2018, Aspen Seminars for Leaders

Proceedings at this Aspen Seminar for Leaders began with an examination of the premise that the digital revolution currently underway is subverting the relationship between humankind and machine, with the change in progress being not only technological but also cultural in nature. With the advent of robots, the economy, society, and the law are also changing – all at a breakneck pace that was inconceivable in past revolutions.

Since human beings are at the centre of this revolution, it was deemed unsurprising that the implications in terms of human capital are enormous. Jobs are changing, and, along with them, so are the sought-after skills. Not only are engineers, programmers, and graduates in STEM disciplines required, but also philosopher-engineers and ethical programmers, in order to grasp the wider implications of technological choices. Attention was drawn to the crucial role that the education and training system has to play in shaping these new professional profiles. Indeed, from primary school through to university and life-long learning, the main objective must now be that of "teaching to learn".

Data was held up as another key element of this revolution. Indeed, it was argued that data effectively amounts to today’s oil. However, it is not enough to accumulate huge quantities of data, but rather crucial to know how to selectively collect it. In addition, data needs to be stored, with most of it now held outside Europe. This was seen as posing the question of whether such data is capable of being accessed as and when required. Data management also needs to be governed. New technological, legal, and organizational infrastructure is essential to store, transmit, and use data. In all this process, society is being profoundly transformed, while the law is already evolving to protect old and new rights. 

It was noted, however, that human-machine interactions are posing problems which, when examined more closely, are actually not that new. Today, as in the past, it is necessary to put in place ethical rules that enable algorithms to be deployed only for permissible purposes. Yet if algorithms have learning capabilities, at some point they too will become responsible for their own actions, which goes a long way to explaining why in some countries the issue of the legal personality of algorithms has already been raised.

The participants stressed that the ultimate goal must always be that of improving human life. The welfare model must support this revolution and facilitate adaptation, especially among those most vulnerable in society. If a collaborative rather than a replacement model prevails, then people will even be able to reclaim their time.

It was conceded, however, that the revolution underway also carries unprecedented risks. The excessive amount of information we are being swamped with confuses our ability to discern truth. As a result, paradoxically, in an age of data now measured in zettabytes, fake news is flourishing.

Notwithstanding such considerations, the conclusions reached by the seminar participants were less ominous than presupposed by the starting premise. The artificial intelligence revolution was characterized as being as much about politics as about technology, and while the debate may conjure up science fiction scenarios, in the end it comes down to the continued central importance of human beings and the primacy of politics.