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Who owns knowledge?

30 October 2023

Who owns knowledge?

30 October 2023

Turin, 30 May – 2 June 2024

Technological progress is a key ingredient of economic growth, and its role is bound to become even more important in the years to come. Besides making our social protection systems and quality healthcare unsustainable, the declining birth rate in advanced economies may, in the long run, lead to a worsening of living standards. It is imperative to achieve ever higher levels of productivity, increasing the added value generated by those who work, for this not to happen.

Today’s technological progress is largely related to knowledge, namely, to the use of information to create value. Progress is made by using huge databases and being able to “make them talk” with algorithms capable of processing this massive amount of information. Artificial intelligence created with these algorithms is applied in the most diverse fields: from medical diagnosis to civil justice, from law enforcement to education.

Unfailingly, an acceleration of technological progress raises concerns about its consequences for labor. History of ideas is paved with technological pessimism. However, many catastrophic predictions about the consequences of new technologies have turned out to be unfounded. Even though “the end of work” has been proclaimed again and again, economies around the world keep generating millions of jobs, and the employment rate (the ratio of employed people to the working-age population) has been on the rise everywhere during the 20th century and still is at the beginning of the current one. Although unemployment rises in years of crisis and is now too high in some countries, including ours, there is no sign of long-term growth in unemployment.

The new frontiers of technological progress, however, are redefining the way we work much more than in the past. Machines are no longer only able to replace humans in repetitive, routine tasks, but also in intellectual tasks and professions. Tasks that were once the exclusive preserve of humans, such as writing, translating, and drawing, can now be performed by machines instead of people. And we fear that the algorithms will take over, deciding for us against our interest, instead of us driving these developments and using them to raise the quality of our work. We fear that this will lead to the creation of super-intelligent entities, with values not in line with those of human beings. Delegating choices to algorithms can lead to socially damaging results. If it becomes optimal – with respect to the goal to be maximized – for an algorithm to discriminate or collude, who will be responsible for its choices?

Digital technology has transformed the way we book a plane ticket, choose a restaurant, watch a movie, or listen to music. It has deeply changed the way we inform ourselves, communicate, make purchases, find a job, and meet new people. All these choices generate information, i.e. knowledge. Who controls and exploits these huge sources of data? And to what end?

The basic problem is to manage, rather than be managed by, technological progress, and to regulate access to this immense source of information. But how can we do this? And do governments have the necessary strength to impose restrictions to the web giants that are in possession of those data?

The economies of scale attainable in processes based on the aggregation of information have increased market concentration and the economic power connected with this phenomenon. Think of the rise of the platforms we all know – Netflix, Spotify, Booking, Amazon etc.  Similarly, social media – Instagram, Facebook, X – have made it possible for billions of people to communicate at no cost.

Market concentration, the existence of a few dominant networks, the fact that we can do everything on one platform, makes our lives easier. We have more choice, more convenience, more information, at often lower prices. But this kind of concentration also reduces competition and innovation and can leave many behind. Innovative start-ups are fewer and fewer. There are people and companies at a disadvantage that risk being left even further behind. Less young people and less dynamic companies are being asked to make a greater effort to keep up. Others do not have the resources to equip themselves with state-of-the-art technology even if they want to. There is therefore a risk that inequalities in access to technology and in the ability to use it will increase existing social tensions. And provoke a rebellion against technological progress of the kind we have seen against globalization.

Platforms make money by selling companies both advertising space on their portals and part of the enormous amount of information collected on the behavior of users, which enables them to customize their offerings. But how far is the use of socially produced knowledge lawful? To what extent is it possible to exercise property rights over it? What restrictions should be imposed to protect privacy?

Questions also arise about the origin of information and about machine-generated content, which can have significant implications for trust and authenticity in the digital age. How can we check the veracity of a ChatGPT-generated text? While knowledge economy, the massive use of artificial intelligence, may lead to productivity gains with few precedents in history, we are faced with completely unexplored economic, social, and ethical issues.  We will discuss them in Turin for four days with the best minds that have studied the problem in recent years. Many economists, but as always also historians, sociologists, lawyers, media scholars, technologists, and entrepreneurs. With a non-specialist language that includes rather than excludes as new technologies too often do.

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