Artificial Intelligence

When technology sets the rules of the game.
Francesco Levantini

Ok Google, open Slash Web Radio. Alexa, lower the volume. Echo, turn on the lights in the room.


They are commands, a computer scientist would say, orders we give the computer and that are part of our everyday life. We do this with the natural language and the voice assistants of our home automation systems respond by maintaining the expectations we had when we purchased them. Is this artificial intelligence? Probably so, mostly because it is precisely those expectations we have toward the machines that are changing and so is the changing relationship we have with them. Only a few years ago we would have considered the calculation capabilities of a computer to be normal, while we would have been very surprised to listen to it talking in a friendly way with a human being or even simply playing with our cat.


Alexa, Google's voice assistant

However, today, home automation or automotive systems are no longer a surprise to us and both at home and on the road our expectations are very different. Behaviours such as talking to voice assistants asking them to book a train or plane, calling a taxi or buying theatre tickets or choosing a restaurant seem normal to us. Cars with independent driving systems such as Tesla or Google cars are now able not only to see obstacles in front of them but to keep the behaviour of other cars under control even several kilometres away and detected thanks to the drivers' mobile phones. But, so far, this is a chronicle of our time. But AI – Artificial Intelligence – is now crossing another threshold. The increase in the computing capabilities of microcomputers and the exponential growth of the Internet are providing machines with sensors and actuators placed all around us and involving not only things but most of all the collective unconscious and the collective intelligence.


I have already written on these pages how a computer could easily translate The Betrothed into Chinese using social networks. Let us take the first sentence of the novel: "That branch of the Lake of Como, which turns toward the south..." The word "that" comes before "branch." How many times in the novel? And how many times does the word "branch" follow the word "the?" It is very easy for a computer to analyze the frequency of pairs, triads or any combination of words that, if transposed into Chinese, and considering all possible synonyms, would allow a machine to connect in a social network in China with people who exchange in friendly chats and to pick from their sentences those with the words having the same distribution as those of Manzoni. It is also interesting to realize that if I use these algorithms in the morning rather than in the evening I get different results because people are different and their moods vary. It is really new computer science where the 0s and the 1s work together with the electrochemical signals of our biological brains which unknowingly participate in data processing.


Man and machine, an illustration

And what happens when these tools instead of simply translating texts or creating commercial jingles to advertise products are used on the stock exchange or in electoral campaigns? Are the demands made by the European Union or Pope Francis himself for new rules in computer ethics really exaggerated? British journalist Carole Cadwalladr gave a talk on the subject in the latest edition of TED (Technology Entertainment Design) attributing to social networks an important responsibility in the disastrous outcome of Brexit.


Allow me to close with a warning with the words of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who in 2002 talked about the concept of globalization: "[...] globalization’s glass house must be open to all if it is to remain secure. [...] bigotry and ignorance can be seen as the ugly faces of an exclusive, antagonistic globalization.” Was that warning, ahead of its time, addressed to what is today the arrogance of the GMAFIA’s computing capabilities (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, Apple)?


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