Entrepreneur, influencer, but above all a visionary analyst of the benefits that exponential technology can bring to our societies. He is David Orban, president of the first Italian two-day Singularity U Summit to be held on 27-28 September in Milan, promoted by the Singularity University of which he is an advisor. Orban, with his lecture on innovation, will be one of the guests of the ceremony of the new "Lombardy Is Research" award that will be held on 8 November at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.
Professor, first of all, what does Singularity University teach, what makes it unique?
"Our most important message is that the technologies available to us constitute the foundation of the solutions to present and future global challenges. These technologies are accelerating: applying artificial intelligence and robotics within companies, but also in our lives, is essential. Our progress is not a zero-sum game where I win because you lose. Thanks to this technological acceleration each of us can progress toward the dreams that we want to realise for a better society. Exponential technologies are the ones that in a given period can be multiplied by 8, 12, 16 times their own power, as can be seen in the evolution of computers and mobile phones. There are many: solar energy, 3D printing, security networks, communication networks to share passions and creativity among people all over the world. Silicon Valley doesn't have an exclusive on the future, other cities like New York, Hong Kong, Milan and why not all of Lombardy and Italy can also play an important role. At Singularity University passionate and creative people get together to solve problems through the technologies they see every day in their communities. We can be on the cutting edge of this change, or if we are afraid we can follow from behind: the choice is ours".
You have a positive vision of these technologies that, as you underlined on the stage, are also reshaping our social expectations. But isn't there a problem of democracy in accessing a range of technologies that are essential for progress?
"The ones I mentioned are all technologies that have very low barriers to entry. Of course all new technologies are elitist in the beginning. Remember how proud we were to hold the first few mobile phones, which were as heavy as bricks and whose battery lasted very little. Today, smartphones are universal tools of emancipation, able to give everybody the power to participate: I have literally seen homeless people that have a smartphone, they send emails, have a Facebook page and are able to be active members of global networks. Or take electric cars: today they are very expensive, but this is only a beta test. They don't yet have all the best features, for example these cars are forcing us to drive them, something that a mere robot can do. One day however we will be able to sleep or read while cars take us into new, beautiful places to explore. But this scenario will be reached gradually. So accusing an immature technology of being elitist means choking it and not allowing it to come to full fruition. Maybe in 10 years we'll be able to go to Mars and someone will complain that not everyone can go, but everybody will be able to go if we first begin with an exploration that is expensive and dangerous. In short, the answer to look for is how we will achieve certain milestones, and no one can claim to have already understood because the future is not written. Conspiracy theories are so attractive because they are supported by people who say they already have an answer, they already know the truth. Not so, they are fables that we must reject and recognise that we are all in this together, looking for inclusive and sustainable answers".
From the stage you cautioned: "Unemployed is a racist epithet". But many fear that increased automation will lead to the loss of millions of jobs, what do you think?
"Defining a person by a single dimension, i.e., his or her economic output within a society is reductive and, worse, destructive, and that's why I reject the term unemployed. With regard to automation, the next effect will be the disappearance of the white-collar employee, but are we really so sure that a life spent behind a desk is something worth regretting? Automation can be the means of freeing those who before had this type of employment, a way to unleash their creativity. Channelling people into a job that allows them to survive cannot be the purpose of society in the 21st century. To the contrary, we must nurture the opportunities for all, in an inclusive manner, so that they can have dignity and a role within the community in which they live. We have to think that true wealth will be in cultivating talents, even those that people do not find within themselves. Talents, passions and creativity must be found in society regardless of age, because ideas are the greatest resource we have. The only alternative is a bloody, violent revolution, like many others that we have already witnessed".
You don't just study the future, you live it: for years you have had a microchip implanted under the skin of your hand. Explain how it works and why you made this choice?
"In fact I experience technology first-hand: at home I have a 3D printer, Bitcoin miners, virtual reality systems. As for the chip, it not only serves for identification, but in compatible environments I can pay for coffee or photocopies, book a meeting room or even a train ticket. For example in the Happy Center coworking space in Stockholm or the Swedish railways. Even in Italy there can be new spaces for experimentation of this kind. The most open are the so-called Fab Labs, where anyone can go to get their hands dirty with these new technologies, even without necessarily having a microchip implanted. Touch them with your hands, get off the couch, get in the game, even make 100 mistakes before succeeding can be wonderful. It needs to be done in schools, businesses, government offices, even risking looking stupid. This is the only way we can get full value from these technologies, beyond just the negative aspects that some communication of the 20th century seeks to emphasise, like saying that bitcoin is used only by drug addicts and terrorists. This is obviously not the case, but there are always dangerously short-sighted and naive visions of new technologies, which instead are formidable instruments of emancipation".
We will see you again in Milan on the stage of La Scala, for the awarding of the international research prize established by the Lombardy Region. What role can institutions play in dealing with such momentous changes like the ones you mentioned?
"The path to these new technological and social scenarios is not linear, one can arrive at totally unanticipated innovations. In this scenario, the role of the policy maker is not to decide who the winners and losers are, but rather to support the maximum possible variety of experiments with the least possible bureaucracy, so as to develop a region that in its various areas has a great future to express. Milan is the central player of the Italian setting with regard to start-ups, industrial automation, finance, fashion and much more. Together with the regional government and the local area it has the well-supported ambition to expand this leading role to a European and international level as well.