There is a lot of talk about artificial intelligence (AI) and yet so far, the Italian debate has not focused enough on the actual impact it can realistically have on our economic system. The first attempt to understand what boost AI can give to the competitiveness of our country was made by Stefano da Empoli, economist, president of the independent think tank Istituto per la Competitività, and professor of political economy and economic policy at the University Roma Tre, Italy, with his essay "Artificial intelligence: last call. The Italy system called to the test of the future" (published by The University Bocconi Publisher in the Itinerari series). "The most important challenge will be to enable the production system as a whole to adopt advanced, affordable and skilled solutions. Although Italy has a low level of digitization, our companies – starting with SMEs – can take advantage of the potential competitive advantages that AI offers them on a silver platter. A crucial chance that, however, can only be seized by calling the institutions, as well as civil society and corporate representation, to a new responsibility," da Empoli writes. But what is this crucial chance and what are the Italy’s risk of not seizing it? We asked the author
As is often the case, just like with blockchain, some technologies are talked about at length but still create a lot of confusion…
Yes, artificial intelligence is a very fashionable topic. The path that gave rise to the book is to try to face AI as a fact, a reality that already exists and not as a future horizon. Then I tried to get out of the debate by trying to establish whether it is a good or bad innovation in very secular and pragmatic perspective. Finally, the attempt was also to be concrete, in order to get out of the abstraction typical of public debate in the technological field.
What is a definition we can give of artificial intelligence?
It is a set of technologies that generates machines with predictive capabilities. That is, it allows the machine to understand what will happen in the future to certain phenomena. Something that is implemented in almost every field. The most common example is autonomous driving: in that case it is the ability to predict obstacles or scenarios to avoid accidents. The point is that the pervasiveness of this technological revolution is not confined to a technology department or a sector.
Something as revolutionary as the internet?
It is more comparable to the arrival of electricity. It will be a wave that will change the very way of producing and creating industry. The Internet has not been so defining.
You argue in the book that the industrial and economic future of the country is played out on this ground…
There is no doubt about it. It is crucial to position yourself strategically within this innovation.
But you point out a number of issues that jeopardize Italy’s positioning. What are they?
The first is the issue of skills, which in my opinion is the main topic and is pervasive. The most immediate is that of the companies themselves, in particular the SMEs, which undoubtedly have a lesser knowledge and capacity in terms of human capital to be put in place compared to other players. But that is what is needed to make this transformation. That is why they are going to have to help.
The first form of help is to make them understand the impact and opportunities of AI in all kinds of business. They must also be supported in making the necessary investments to equip themselves with the most useful technological infrastructures.
After the companies, what other components of the production chain are involved in the issue of skills?
The second level is workers. Current and future workers. There is a risk of job losses. I am not a catastrophist. In absolute terms, I do not think there will be a reduction in jobs. But without new skills, the worker is in danger of being left out. People need to get in and be helped in upskilling paths. In this sense, the world of vocational training and apprenticeship is very important. The last level is education. Both schools and universities must be adapted to the challenges that lie ahead. Human capital is the real ground on which this game is played. Much more so than financial investments.
Yet, in the face of this framework, the Italian government in recent years has approved tools such as the Jobs Act, the Decreto Dignita’ (Dignity Degree) and the Citizenship Income…
There is no doubt that we need to make a 180-degree reversal on the issue of work, training and education. These policies cannot allow the leap that is needed. It is not an easy challenge and measures are not enough. Certainly the current ones do not help.
Having said that, does Italy have skills and peculiarities that give competitive advantages in this new context?
Absolutely. The first one on which I would like to dwell, and it is very general, is the extreme resilience of the Italian production world. Then we also have specific advantages. I have identified five. The first is the organizational flexibility of our companies. If we think, for example, of Germany, we see that they have much more rigid structures. The second element is the extreme customization of the product that we know how to create. AI serves to enhance this capacity and make it more structural, but it fails to replace those soft skills that Italian companies show they have in this sector. The third element is our great strength in B2B, which is the area in which most of the benefits of AI will be concentrated. The logic of coopetición is the fourth element, that is, the link between competition and cooperation that underpins the DNA of our business model but also of innovation and AI itself. And the fifth element, the most decisive, is that access to technology is happening at a very low cost.
If you were to give advice to a young person, in the face of the scenario that is about to happen, what would it be?
Not to focus on hard skills but on soft skills. I am not saying that you should not continue to want degrees and master's degrees, but hyper-specialization will no longer pay off because it will be replaced by machines. The difference will be made by lateral thinking, which machines are not able to do.