MILAN — Leave it to Gucci to kick off a conference on technology with a live concert. Performed by Holly Herndon, inspired and assisted by artificial intelligence, the first European Innovation Festival, staged by media brand Fast Company and for the first time hosted by Gucci, opened Tuesday morning and is expected to close Thursday in Florence.
After Stephanie Mehta, editor in chief of Fast Company, introduced avatars of Gucci president and chief executive officer Marco Bizzarri and creative director Alessandro Michele, it was only fitting for the festival, dubbed “The Dawn of Superintelligence,” to be opened by Yuval Noah Harari, historian and author of “Sapiens,” and “Homo Deus,” who wondered “if ours is the last generation of Homo sapiens. In the next century, he predicted, humans will either destroy themselves or upgrade to gods,” achieving “divine abilities” to create life.
“There is no reason to think that the Homo sapiens is the last stage.”
He identified “three roads to divinity: biological, cyborg or non-organic engineering,” with the latter being the boldest.
“The truly revolutionary potential is to change not the tools but the Homo sapiens, not the space ships, but the beings. Most science fiction focuses on people just like us with familiar dilemmas,” Harari said.
He elicited a round of laughter when he compared “Star Trek” characters to middle class Americans dealing with inequality or their romantic issues – but just out in space. Envisioning a change in Homo sapiens through non-organic engineering, “there would be no relation to what we would see on the screen, it would be like showing ‘Hamlet’ to Neanderthals,” said Harari, who also mused that by 2050 or 2100, “a smart phone could be embedded in our body or brain, monitoring our blood pressure and analyzing biometric data, which would know our desires better than we would.”
Humans would have two brains, and one would be bionic and we “might not be conscious of it, but it would be able to monitor symptoms, block stupid decisions — maybe we would not be able to survive if disconnected by this bionic brain.”
And who would own this second brain in the inter-brain-net, he wondered. “Google, the government?”
He admitted there were no answers to these questions, but he was careful to differentiate brain and mind, the latter a flow of subjective experiences and intelligence from consciousness. “There is no reason to think robots or computers will gain consciousness. Computers are no more conscious than in the 1950s, they have no emotions, they analyze emotions and we don’t know if they will gain consciousness.”
Harari warned that this is an “unbalanced world and governments are likely to enhance those skills needed to encourage discipline.” For this reason, he believes it would be “wise to understand and develop the human consciousness.” He said the world was moving into isolation away from collaboration and worried about the arms race. “There should be an international regime of regulations,” he said.
Asked about the powers behind the most advanced technological companies, Harari admitted that there had been a “naïve understanding of what the creation of the Internet will do to society,” and believed there was a “need to understand history and politics.”
He differentiated between the companies and the individuals, “captive” of a system with “trillions of dollars at stake” and their shareholders. “To capture, hijack and manipulate human attention” is key, he said.
“It is a geopolitical problem, what started as a competition between corporations for human attention is now blurring the lines between corporations and country. Corporations are in competition to hack 8 million people, to manipulate and control. There is a regime of surveillance, what happens when the external algorithms know me better than myself? You need to know yourself better than Google, so whatever works for you invest in that — whether it’s meditation, which has helped me for more than two decades, or sports.”
The tone changed with the arrival of Jared Leto, hailed as a “true Renaissance man” by Mehta, who ticked off the artist’s around 70 investments in start-ups, of which six are expected to go public, and in companies ranging from Uber and Spotify to Airbnb. Leto, on a break from a tour passing through Como, enthused about Italy and, after vowing to avoid being the “most boring” segment of the day, proceeded to deliver quirky and funny responses to Mehta — even joking that she must have been thinking, “Wow, here’s a weird one’ or laughing at his orange pants. “Hey, but when you are in Milan and it’s Gucci, you have full permission, it can just be crazy,” said Leto, who has been a longtime friend of the company, fronted the brand’s ad campaigns and attended several of its shows.
Leto admitted that he had dropped out of school and “grew up really poor,” but that his curiosity and avid reading have helped him to “change his life and meet incredible people.” He puts people at the center of all his investments, and said he stays away from investments in entertainment. He emphasized how “technologies are a tool. If they can help people, we will find ways to help people and if they hurt, we will find ways not to hurt.” In a non-segue, Leto shifted his attention to his surprise at Gucci making and selling “dirty sneakers — who would have believed that years ago?” he laughed, addressing Bizzarri in the audience, who looked equally entertained.
In sync with fashion’s current focus on customer experience, responding to a question about concert tours, Leto said more and more people are going to concerts — probably also as a reaction to spending so much time behind devices and computers, so much so that “being at a show physically is compelling.” From his perspective, “there is no greater feeling than standing on stage and sharing your music,” communicating and in an exchange with the audience that “individually [may be extremely different] but they agree on the same thing, being together at the concert.”
About social media, he said “it’s not the best thing for mental health — you have to have discipline,” and for this reason he enjoys Snapchat, where there are no public comments to one’s posts. He touted “letting go” of one’s portable phone as much as possible, freeing himself from the “digital leash” and that sense of anxiety it provokes.
Bizzarri took the stage after Leto on Wednesday, and, asked to speak of technological optimism, he remembered how in his first role as a ceo managing a $3 million company, he didn’t know what to do and he looked around to see who were the successful ceo’s. Bizzarri cited Domenico De Sole, who turned Gucci around “fortunately”; automotive legend Lee Iacocca, who died last week, and Steve Jobs. “They were not pessimistic ceo’s. If you want to run a company, you need to be optimistic.”
Bizzarri said he relies on technology to delegate the more “boring tasks” to be creative — “this is what I like.” He said he especially wanted to support the festival as a “gathering of brilliant minds. I am optimistic for what I can control but for what I can’t control, I want to make sure there is an open discussion.”
People are what gives a competitive advantage, he said, and discussions will help keep an open mind and attract the best people. Speaking of his choice to hire Michele, he said that decision was not about spreadsheets and marketing tools. “We did what we liked, respecting people. Creativity is human-based. AI can tell me what customers want today, but we need to know what they want before [they do].”
In closing, Bizzarri was asked whose brain he would download — if possible — for longevity and posterity. “Leonardo da Vinci’s and Pelé — I am a soccer fan,” he grinned.
How companies use AI to build tight relationships with customers was among the themes discussed by Natalie Massenet, cofounder of Imaginary Ventures and non-executive chair of Farfetch, as well as by London Business School professor Julian Birkinshaw and Rudy Cline-Thomas, founder and managing partner of Mastry Inc.
“If retail fundamentally is based on listening to the consumers, technology is allowing companies to stay closer to the customer,” said Massenet, who cited Farfetch’s fit predictor as a great tool using AI to guarantee a more efficient shopping experience and at the same time support the expansion of online shopping, which is sometimes prevented by people’s concerns regarding ordering the right size.
Massenet pointed out that there is a future for people in retail in the computer age. “If technology can anticipate your desires and habits, it will never be able to tell you if you look great or if something is not right for you, which is something people cannot renounce.”
According to Birkinshaw, in the future, AI will be fully used to do boring manual things and also analytical activities, including basic journalism, but it will never replace ceo’s and executives’ human judgment, service and operations by real people and relationships based on empathy type skills.
But how can AI-based technology coexist with people’s natural desire for a certain privacy?
“Technology makes our life easier and since we are all lazy, we naturally want easy things,” said Cline-Thomas. “But I think there must be some sort of social responsibility of people putting together the algorithms.”
And while Birkinshaw highlighted the importance of having regulations, especially allowing people to retrieve their data, at the same time he pointed the risky reverse effect of regulations, which tend to slow down innovation.
“Technology is not good or bad, it’s about what you do with technology,” said Salesforce director of research Michael Jones, who pointed out the importance of setting firm core values to prevent technology’s unintended consequences.
To limit the negative sides of the application of AI-based technologies, Imran Chaudhri, an Apple veteran now cofounder of Hu.ma.ne, underscored the importance of “putting together a multidisciplinary team while promoting inclusivity.”
Ari Helgason, principal at Index Ventures, said it is “an anachronism to speak of artificial intelligence — almost like speaking of a software enabler — as it is a tool to solve technical problems and funds are being channelled into AI enablers.” According to the panel, which also included Ben Blume, principal of Atomico; Timothy O’Connell, senior partner and head of global business and open innovation at H-Farm, and Kimmy Scott, founding partner at BVC, $9.3 billion was invested in AI in 2018. O’Connell cited 5,000 AI listed start-ups.
“The media [has] scared people about AI, but it’s not magic, not voodoo, not rocket science,” Blume said. “It’s advanced statistics.”