Ensuring ethics in the digital transition
Digital experiences and artificial intelligence play a central role in daily post-modern life.
Today algorithms lead the new frontiers of medicine, guide financial decisions on domestic and international levels, foster new forms of tourism, increase the connection between individuals and their communities, drive innovation within the food system, serve as tools to ensure food security and food justice, boost local economies, and even encourage individuals to deep dive into their emotions and personal feelings.
These last two years of the pandemic have demonstrated the incredible potential of the digital transition, by testing the introduction of online/offline methodologies, from food distribution to remote working, allowing people to thrive despite lockdowns and isolation.
With data sourcing becoming the new currency, data is not only driving entire sectors of the market (from consumer behavior to the general need for better transparency) but is also at the heart of stable democracies. Given the large share of people who now have access to a significant amount of data, it is apparent that data democratization is acquiring increasing relevance in our societies.
However, artificial intelligence raises a number of concerns. Digital lives have political, economic, social, cultural, and moral consequences which are often underestimated.
The “liquid modernity,” used by Bauman to define the fluid state of contemporary society, in which the speed and rate of constant changes of experiences hinder individuals to consolidate stable bonds and habits, is accelerated by the new remoteness and software-based modernity. These are all aspects that inevitably deteriorate physical and mental health. Together with the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and the inability to switch it off (ITSO), two increasingly widespread pathologies, the growing digital dependency, and erosion of social cohesion are among the latest threats that contribute to global concerns, as included in the recent Global Risk Report.
If human decisions are going to be more and more influenced by computers, it is important to reflect on the ethical aspect of these new realities. Ethics comes from the Greek word “ethos,” which means habit or custom. In other words, ethics is what makes humans do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, as Aristotle used to say. Only by pursuing the right way of acting, a person can reach excellence and happiness, which the philosopher sees as human flourishing. The purpose of ethics is therefore to become good people, not just to live life numbly, but to actively contribute to the regeneration of our Planet and to the well-being of the community. Greek philosophers had already understood that choosing to act in the right way is not just something intrinsic in human nature, but something that we can train for to start making ethical and just choices as a daily habit, just like drinking a glass of water.
Between the 6th and 8th of May, the Ethos LUISS Business School Observatory organized the first Public Ethics Festival in Rome with the specific purpose of exploring the relationship between ethics and digital in all its dimensions. From the effects which artificial intelligence has on social innovation and sustainability, to its links with religion, war, healthcare, and human enhancement. 50 speakers among philosophers, academic scholars, and international AI experts came together to talk about the challenges and opportunities that digitalization creates in relation to human ethics, something that influences our decisions and our actions more and more.
Designing smart and transparent cities
Co-designing sustainable, self-sufficient, and resilient cities is a priority we can no longer postpone. In this process, digitalization is playing a starring role. Digital exchanges have moved from offices to residences, reshaping cities, fostering decentralized networks, and even allowing remote areas to be enlivened.
In a world where cities are becoming more and more digital and where connections happen mostly behind a screen or within a digital cloud, artificial intelligence is also making processes more transparent. This is a real game-changer for people’s trust in local and global institutions. Blockchain technology, for example, is revolutionizing cities’ governance and communication channels, fostering sustainable urban management and incentivizing the active involvement and participation of the citizens.
These are crucial aspects that also drive bottom-up diplomacy, with solutions shaped around the specific contexts and needs of a given territory which empower the mayors, deep connoisseurs of the local community, and valorize the proximity of human relationships. The diplomacy of cities opens the door to the ethics of citizen service, of the common good and it is possible only when digital technologies are put in service of the local community.
Using computers and AI in a sustainable way means recognizing their potential and employing them to boost the meaning of everyone’s life, balancing digital machines with a human-centered approach and ethical values. This is exactly what we have been developing within our Paideia Campus in Pollica, within our vision for Pollica 2050, where digitalization is used as a powerful resource to promote Smart Living practices in the village and help its regeneration. During the recent Pollica Digital Week completed on March 31st, innovators, policymakers, and citizens of the region gathered to think about how digital transition could support the sustainable development of the territory, using AI and digital tools in ethical ways to promote environmental regeneration while keeping human ethics and values at the core of the experience.
Regenerative agriculture: merging traditional and digital
Especially after the pandemic, digital platforms have been an essential tool for the agricultural sector to find resilience in its own resources, to directly connect farmers and producers, and to create links that facilitate sustainable trading and farming.
Blockchain applied to the agri-food system has already helped to certify and track agri-food products’ origins in real-time (like BluDev). If you now put a little drop of olive oil in a digital machine, the computer will be able to tell you where the olive oil comes from, from what Italian region, from what piece of land, and who produced it. This way, in addition to better traceability, computational data helps consumers make more ethical and sustainable choices.
Artificial intelligence already makes it possible to diagnose diseases in plant control, manage soil and water efficiently, and also by using sensors, drones, and soil sampling to collect data and save them. The possibility of creating a digital bank of seeds that could enhance sustainable practices and preserve the biodiversity of our environment, thanks to artificial intelligence, could be the next frontier of regenerative agriculture.
This does not mean that the digitalization of the agri-food system is not free from ethical concerns. The risk of artificial intelligence in replacing some of the human activities, including planting and harvesting, is evidenced in the advance in AgBots.
This does not mean that progress should only come with digitalization.
The Mediterranean lifestyle is the perfect exemplification of the value of traditional knowledge and ancient agro-ecological wisdom that from our ancestors should be preserved from forgetfulness and applied in contemporary society.
Innovation and technologies should be conceived in the etymological meaning of the ancient Greek word, “techne,” which means “manual ability, art, craft,” which is something very related to humanity and our ability to transform the natural raw material into a work of art. Innovative and technological development should therefore be based on the dialogue of humanistic knowledge with scientific knowledge, digital technology, and traditional know-how.
Digitalization: between cultures and religions
Two years of the pandemic have provided a stage to test, redesign, and reinvent practices and classic experiential activities.
New forms of education, new forms of conviviality, and even new forms of accessing cultural heritage. In these last two years, a lot of museums have developed technologies, installations, and tools to experience a virtual reality that allows digital visitors to enjoy the beauty of their collection while still sitting in their living rooms. This is another example of how AI can be effectively used to improve individual and societal well-being, when humanity remains the primary target and core of the action.
The Virtual Museum of the Mediterranean Diet and the Living Museum of the Sea are taking advantage of the benefits of digital tools by using computers to showcase a collection of memories related to the Mediterranean Diet, recognized as a UNESCO intangible heritage. The more than 150 digital interviews recorded and broadcasted by the Museum allow visitors to connect with the heritage of the Mediterranean Diet even from a distance. If conviviality and sharing are core values of the Mediterranean Diet, digital machines have helped the Museums to engage with people in times when the only interaction we had was with a screen.
The Festival also touched upon the relationship between ethics and religion.
“To restore the ethical perspective to our current lives we need to preserve the seeds of our future lives,” these were the powerful words pronounced by Father Andrea Ciucci, Coordinator of the Secretariat of the Pontifical Academy for Life (Holy See), on the occasion of the first in-person Boot Camp in Pollica in 2020.
When we use ethics in our lives, we tend to ask ourselves important questions: is what I am doing wrong? Is that right? Why is it?
Putting humanity in the center again allows us to create real connections between people. While digitalization and AI have taught us that it is possible to travel from one corner of the world to the other with a click, we have forgotten the beauty of slowing down and taking time to reconnect with nature, with other people, and with ourselves. This is the essence of the Prosperity Thinking approach: putting humans and nature’s needs at the core of our innovation processes to generate sustainable ideas for our environment.
The reality is that virtual connections are meaningless without human connections. Artificial intelligence needs to be looked at and used through a human lens, in order to give it not only a functioning brain but also a human heart that can make ethical decisions. If ethics involve the ability of a person to do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way for humans to flourish, as Aristotle said, we cannot completely hold digital machines accountable for our actions and decisions. This is also part of the challenge of reinstating our sense of ethics.
“Pollica 2050 — Mediterranean Living” is a strategic vision that focuses on the Mediterranean Diet as a framework of Integral Ecological Regeneration to enhance dormant resources and build a model of inclusive prosperity to foster an ecosystem that is capable of regenerating itself for future sustainability. The initiative is led by the Mayor of the Municipality of Pollica (Cilento, Italy), Stefano Pisani, and co-designed through a long-term collaboration with the impact-driven entrepreneur Sara Roversi and her global social enterprise, the Future Food Institute.