MILAN — “Digitalization offers opportunities, this a result shared by all generations, risks are temporary or just collateral.” This was the conclusion drawn by Prada chairman Carlo Mazzi at the end of the “Shaping a Sustainable Digital Future,” the event held by Prada at the brand’s Milan Fondazione headquarters on Tuesday. This was the second “Shaping a Future” event and it explored the relationship between sustainability and digital innovation, and it was once again in a partnership with The Schools of Management of Politecnico di Milano and the Yale Center for Customer Insights.

The role of artificial intelligence and technology and their impact on society and employment were key themes.

“By 2030, China wants to be leader in artificial intelligence. Americans and Chinese are making up a bipolar world. Where is Europe? Europe is far behind and to develop and exploit technology you need to be big and invest in service. Europe is retrenching, while Americans and Europeans are dominant in the digital and technological sector,” said Vittorio Grilli, a former Italian Minister of Economy and Finances and since 2014 chairman of the Corporate & Investment Bank, EMEA at J.P. Morgan, during the first round table. Grilli said banks are not generally believed to be technological, but, on the contrary, they are, he noted, adding that J.P. Morgan invests $11 billion in technology every year, “half of the sum to keep the system running and half on new things” and investments include cybersecurity and AI. Grilli remained optimistic about Europe, however. “It’s time to catch up but let’s be watchful, we don’t want to find us in the position of users of technology developed somewhere else,” he observed.

That said, Andrew Keen, executive director of the Silicon Valley innovation salon FutureCast, noted that, while admitting Europe needs to “catch up” in terms of innovation, it is a leader as far as regulations and data protection are concerned, “forcing companies to grow up, to be more transparent and accountable.” He cited how Apple has been recently obliged to pay taxes here to the tune of $12 billion. He urged consumers to be “more aggressive,” without simply relying on regulations.

Rachel Coldicutt, chief executive officer of Doteveryone, a U.K.-based think tank aiming to make the Internet a fairer place, said the big change in the digital sphere is data. “A lot of things were invisible, we push buttons that are easy to use and this makes us feel it’s all easy to understand. Press a button on Uber or Amazon and a million things will happen — many are not physical and we don’t visualize them.” She predicted that “even though machines may speed things up, it’s imperative to make things work in a more tangible way.”

Politecnico di Milano School of Management professor Raffaella Cagliano said that technology has created new jobs, dismissing earlier predictions that 50 percent of jobs would not exist anymore. The outlook more recently has been more positive, she said, as people are required to manage technology and new services, increasing productivity and attracting new business.

“True, some jobs are gone, maybe around 20 or 30 percent, but we need analytical skills to interpret data and that creates more jobs,” concurred Anil Menon, global president of Cisco’s Smart + Connected Communities business, citing the globalization of IT systems as one of the driving forces.

Jon Iwata, Executive-in-Residence at the Yale School of Management, underscored the difference between occupations and jobs as artificial intelligence makes its mark. “Jobs are not taken by robots, but by human beings that know how to work technology better than you. New tasks emerge, leading to roles and professions,” he said, citing as an example setting up a web site. “With AI, new tasks are emerging, a new vocabulary leads to processes, new issues and societal implications. AI implies objectivity, but human beings decide to create, objectivity is a myth.”

Keen said that technology has become affordable, and underscored the difference between those who can escape technology and those who can’t. “The wealthy executives from Apple and Facebook send their kids to Waldorf schools for Steiner educations, where technology is not allowed,” he said, also referencing a school in New York where “kids the other day set up a strike because they didn’t want to use iPads.”

Keen, too, emphasized the importance of “empathy and creativity, and to figure out what algorithms can’t do. The mistake is to compete with them. The quality of human agency is essential to shape technology and not vice versa. “

Menon said “globalism is ignoring local values, which is leading to populism. People feel their values are not being understood.” Keen concurred saying that “the biggest irony is that we thought [the Internet] would create a universal citizen but the reverse is true, it’s compounded parochialism, re-creating a village mentality. The digital revolution is reinforcing a populist bias, an intolerance of the digital realm, leading to an economic reality where the winner takes it all. These are the ideal conditions for populism.”

Iwata cautioned against losing control over privacy. “Is it privacy or convenience when we just click on the cookies? We are not choosing, they just show up. It feels like a service, because I want more of this but I am actually losing control.”

In a riveting keynote, Nicholas Negroponte, chairman emeritus of MIT Media Lab, talked about the arrival of the Internet on the scene 50 years ago, how it “started slowly” and how “nobody thought it would grow” to become what it is today. “It was against the law to be on the Internet” back then, he observed. Negroponte underscored how it took 50 years for a service such as Uber to be created as others needed to be invented before, ranging from mobile phones to messaging systems. “It took a phenomenon of different moons aligning,” he said. When Marvin Minsky first talked of artificial intelligence in 1957, Negroponte said people laughed at him saying it was an oxymoron, and he had almost no public recognition until his death in 2016. At MIT Media Lab, “misfits” are the most welcome, he continued, the “rejects from other departments.” He cited Joseph Jacobson, one of the inventors of the E Ink, and said that MIT is working on “growing a car” in one piece. “People laughed when we spoke of the concept of flat screens, we are now studying pills to swallow to learn French, and the same concept of communicating with the brain from inside could one day cure blindness, so whoever says that technology is negative, I say screw you.” He also touched on the subject of the changes in our lives, which used to be “fried eggs” and are now “omelets,” because the “crisp lines between being at home and at work, or at school and not, on vacation or not,” are no longer there. “There must be a different way to understand the omelet.”

Negroponte took umbrage with the “failure of the group” idea, “the one that bothers [him] the most, it’s rubbish.” He said that those who believe President Trump is in place because he was voted by a white community from the central U.S. states are wrong. “We have Trump because business schools have taught us to be greedy. We tell children to go to business schools and that the public sector is for idiots. We have a corporate mind but capitalism is not democracy,” said Negroponte. He said he had been accused of being unpatriotic, but he resisted this definition and said there “are other ways to measure citizens, they are not customers,” while he was also very negative about the private school system. He said he had noted a big change in his students, as half of them end up going to “big companies with big salaries,” where their work is “locked up. Apple is the greediest company, it’s the worst, they share no research, and they buy and bury the small companies.” The other half start their own companies, but often based on “small, stupid ideas. They may succeed but we have lost enormous brain power, and in the future we will say what were they doing?”


Nicholas Negroponte at the Prada event.  courtesy image


This year, the involvement of Yale and Politecnico students increased, with 22 groups of three students each, selected to explore the 2018 topic. Only six groups were invited to go further after the projects were submitted to a jury of professors and Prada representatives. These finalists took part in a hackathon at the Yale School of Management on Oct. 26 and 27. The project named “Being” was selected to be presented on Tuesday. This proposes a service that preserves and regenerates cultural heritage by using artificial intelligence to sort existing data through the lens of culture. “We do not need more resources; we need to be more resourceful,” stated the study.

This led to a conversation analyzing the importance of cooperation between the public and the private sectors to preserve cultural heritage and to allow digital technology to flourish.

Andrea Illy, chairman of Illycaffé and of Fondazione Altagamma, said that “improving your business will improve society,” and that the model of entrepreneurial activities for “just profit” is no longer viable. He also said that “authenticity is more relevant than heritage for customers” — heritage that needs to be “constantly reinvented.”




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