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Ethics and Artificial Intelligence: a conversation with Professor Edmondo Grassi

Ethics and Artificial Intelligence: a conversation with Professor Edmondo Grassi

Artificial Intelligence has become part of our work spaces, of our homes, and governs means of transport and production processes. Are algorithms good or bad? What is the impact of artificial intelligence on society, (geo)politics and rights? We talked about with professor Edmondo Grassi, expert in Ethics and Artificial Intelligence. With his contribution, the Centro Studi Italia-Canada will rise this issue at the third edition of the Italy-Canada Forum on Artificial Intelligence, promoted by the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Canada (ICCC).

Nadia Deisori

Professor Edmondo Grassi


Since man and machines coexist in the same infosphere, our existence can aspire to many more opportunities, claim new rights but also deal with a hybrid dimension, halfway between online and offline.

As the philosopher Luciano Floridi[1] describes, the process of re-ontologization of the world, understood as an infosphere, operated by technologies, has canceled the difference between processors and processed.

The identification between the technological tool and man is already revealed in the very name of "artificial intelligence", a combination of words that is almost an oxymoron: CAN an intelligent being, which therefore understands (or misunderstands) the meaning (and also why) be artificial?

Science fiction has made us dream of a cyborg era for decades. Today it is somehow a reality that we live daily, sometimes as exalted, other times as frightened neophytes and often unable to protect ourselves from the risks of the power of big tech on choices, rights and privacy or to prevent our "too human" prejudices from influencing the machines we program.

The challenges of knowledge have led mankind for centuries to the dimension of human and scientific research and when reality becomes complex, today more than ever, philosophy is once again the protagonist.

Great because they are waiting for new answers and concepts, they are waiting to have a name and they call us to reflect by acting like the great thinkers of the past: blending science and the humanities, ethics and technology, philosophy and mathematics.


We discuss this issue with Edmondo Grassi from University “Roma Tre”, PhD in Theoretical and Applied Social Research with a thesis on “Ethics and Artificial Intelligence”. Centro Studi Italia-Canada is going to raise this topic during the third edition of Canada-Italy Business Forum on Artificial Intelligence (November 18-19, 2021), thanks to the cooperation with the professor.


Professor Grassi, are we in a new digital humanism?

I believe that the first aspect to consider is the decentralization of the very concept of "humanism" in postmodernity. Adopting the perspective of a privileged position of the human being within the world-system has led to great contemporary crises, such as political, environmental, migratory and technological ones - in the social and economic dimension, the digital divide or the search for primary resources. for the production of devices - among others. The centrality of the person in ITS Cartesian vision has fallen in favor of a nomadic vision of being and these shifts no longer occur only in a purely physical dimension but acquire an increasingly broad and relevant relevance in digital environments. The declination of digital humanism could be adopted to the extent that the person can understand, thanks to the most advanced technologies and artificial intelligence, that he is not the only social actOR on this planet but has always shared space and time with a multiplicity of entities that are not mere "objects" but have the weight of subjects and interpreters of the global dynamics which it is immersed IN: human and non-human social actors who weave networks and nodes through which to build a broad collective grammar that can allow us to analyze the great contemporary changes. The cultural rebirth of humanism must be conceived as a collective space in which to produce dialogues and interactions that are moments of crisis - in its etymological potential, from the Greek krino, choice - and of rupture - in the perspective of new personal, social, political identities. - that allow to analyze the protean nature of the person and the inclusion in the ethical-value framework of additional artificial and non-artificial subjects, managing to transcend the current instruments of conception and measurement of the world, up to now implemented both socially and scientifically. We live in networked matter, matter connected through approaches that blur and cancel the last boundaries that defined the static nature of being: space and time. Human beings are rediscovering the centrality of their own narrative as recognition of the self and the community through technological tools that are no longer active only in the moment of their interaction but which act retroactively and independently even when the person stops questioning them. Artificial intelligence has become a prosthesis of being, an extension of it or, better still, an alienus to ask who we are and what the future choices made by humanity may be. The perspective of a social environment shared with machines, microbes, third parties is teaching us a systemic approach to complexity, that is to say the contemplation of the non-linearity of the manifestations of life, of the breaking down of limiting dichotomies, of the rediscovery of dialogue with the environment. surrounding and of "complex living" - a complexity of knots, of intertwining that are not obstacles but that recall the texture of a fabric, of meeting points, structural elements that must be understood, analyzed but not dissolved, penalty would be the loss from the tightness of the system.


Defining Artificial Intelligence

Talking about artificial intelligence, defining it or making sense of it is no less difficult than trying to live with it.

Cyborgs, robots, machines that think, dominate and act with free will. We are full of imaginative cultural references and not at all corresponding to reality, which sometimes lead us to overestimate the machines created by man thanks to new computer technologies and, sometimes, to underestimate them, reducing them to mere mirror images, close both in their features and in their weaknesses to humans.


What is Artificial intelligence? It is difficult even to define what we are delimiting.


AI includes different fields and technologies, such as machine learning, deep learning, data mining, natural language processing, augmented and virtual reality. Technological knowledge seems to be the prerogative of the "computer caste", far from widespread knowledge which instead feeds on beliefs and clichés with all the consequent dangers for rights and democracy.

Its daily applicability means that artificial intelligence can afford a sort of a-moral pragmatism whereas it would require strong ethical models when it finds a place in areas that are vital for our coexistence, our very existence:

  • Health
  • Data Management
  • Mobility
  • Smart cities
  • Sustainability

The technological revolution was characterized by an unprecedented speed, not comparable to previous scientific discoveries. And while technology devoured knowledge in a constant motion of learning and continuous updating, the human skills required for access to work and the very awareness of one's training needs have evolved within a single generation without the time to adapt them to the changing world.

Thus, the opportunities offered by technologies have increased at all levels of public and private life and a new category of digital citizenship rights has developed but also of denied opportunities, inequalities and gaps, in the absence of adequate knowledge and awareness, regulatory frameworks and accompanying value systems.

Moreover, the digital awareness required to stay safe from attacks and fraud has grown with the spread of social networks and the exposure of digital identity in the world of business and public administration.


What is the ethics of artificial intelligence and what is it for?

Society in its current form is an environment in which the progress of the person's actions is manifested and it can itself be investigated through the history of the tools that have allowed the individual to inhabit the planet, improve their livelihood and adapt life to ITS own needs. These elements fall within the field of the indefinite and indistinct until the production of mechanical devices, interactive structures, moral constructions that can outline the perceptive characteristics of borders and their overcoming is reached.

According to Anaximander, the Apeiron was the principle from which everything derives and its characteristics are physical limitlessness and qualitative indefinability, therefore the world, reality, the existential space of being can be circumscribed in the field of the indistinct and, therefore, of the possibilities. The vastness of these concepts leads to the manifestation of fears, restlessness that can be analyzed through an archeology of knowledge and an ethical qualification. The need for the latter is declared by the desire to understand collective interrelations but, above all, by the possibility it offers for the shifting of borders, with the aim of understanding existence in different ways.

Ethics, in its broadest conception, is not aimed at creating rules but at the malleability of the principles of the person, the expression of the symmetry of existence that is not absolute but can be "broken" by introducing new fields of exploration. The imposed boundaries that deprive the individual's chameleonic identity of breath, imposing its crystallization, must become, through ethics, spaces of passage, crossing, osmosis between nomadic existences: borders must not be sacralized in their static nature and held but for their possibility of knowledge, imagination and crossing over.

In this framework, we can also understand and engage an ethics for and of artificial intelligence. The use of the two prepositions is not an error and it is not accidental since:

  • "for" indicates the need to shift the attention paid to the person also to the algorithm and devices with which it interacts. We do not want to give a social value like the replicants of Blade Runner but we ask the person to start conceiving this technology as an entity that manages to intercept and impact with the existential practices of the person that change at every moment, at every access to these intelligent agents who, in addition to supporting direct requests, become forerunners and prescient. Their action must be perceived as a contribution, a collaboration that can allow the person, humanity, to progress towards new horizons.
  • To the extent of the "of", it refers to the formulation of ethical principles that can become the measure of such innovations, as if they were both lens and mirror of a rhizomic composition of new declinations of social existence, especially considering that the question that poses the potential of the algorithms that predispose artificial intelligence is at the basis of the new gestation of the planet, of its cultural paradigms, of political practices, of the automation of public and private life. The need for an ethics that is declined around and in artificial intelligence is central since this innovation returns to underline and strengthen the processes of unhinging anthropocentrism, allowing the person to reacquire the value of their abilities, drives, desires, expectations but most of all, of its nature, having before the immanence of an entity that has become part of the biotechnological network that is our existence. Artificial intelligence, as IT has already happened for other artifacts, contains in itself characteristics that will influence the social system in which it manifests itself and it is necessary to understand its life cycle: every technology, before being concretized, is born as a metaphor for something else, as echo of the imagination and acquisition of a telos, of a destiny whose artifice itself becomes the creator of further possibilities.

An ethics of / for the machine is none other than the assumption of the technicality of being from its origins, from the first moment in which it chose a stone to break the leathery pericarp of a fruit or to protect itself from the aggression of a predator. The open cultural questions posed by the relationship between artificial intelligence and the person call for reflection on a technology that concerns the practical knowledge of the human but evokes, above all, the radical nature of how an artifice can become a vital system for the fulfillment of existence.


Technology’s govenrnance: the Canada example


It is not just civil society that is lost.

The levels of governance are grappling with a change in the model of relations between citizens and states. Modeling the future scenarios of technology through a strategic approach is one of the tasks that politics cannot imply or delegate to the company. AI thus gains positions in political agendas and a central role in the economy.

It is considered a fundamental resource for development in the development plans of international states and organizations. At the same time, the unpredictability of applications and the nebulosity of the ontology are feared.

What is certain is that in the near future we will have to answer many questions, some of them which are very concrete:

  • How to finance and where to direct scientific research?
  • How to train AI talent and attract international talent?
  • How to develop skills in young people and adults in a lifelong learning perspective?
  • How to build plans to enhance industry 4.0?
  • How to govern data and join our efforts to have a sustainable digital infrastructure?
  • How to use AI to improve the Public Administration efficiency in a citizen-needs point of view?
  • How to build up AI knowledge networks to raise inclusion and social well-being?
  • How to protect citizens' privacy and prevent cyberterrorism attacks?


Among the countries that have taken the first steps in this field is Canada, the first in the world, in 2017, to adopt an Artificial Intelligence Strategy.

This is not an abstract document but a real action plan worth 125 million dollars in which there is also a reference value plan, which takes into account the impacts of the algorithms on society and on the management of public affairs[2].

The development and leadership of the strategy has been entrusted by the Government of Canada to CIFAR, a Canadian global research center with over 400 researchers from 161 institutions and 18 different countries.

The Pan-Canadian AI Strategy has ambitious goals, supported by public funding with the support of leading private players in the sector such as Facebook.

The primary goal is to position Canada among the world leaders in the field of artificial intelligence:

● Attracting international researchers and supporting qualified researchers and graduates in Canada

● Promoting a collaborative AI ecosystem, bringing together the scientific excellence of the three major Canadian research centers for AI (Amii in Edmonton, Alberta; Mila in Montreal, Quebec; Vector Institute in Toronto, Ontario)

● Promoting a strategic plan of activities such as training programs and workshops

● Including in the research field of action studies on the economic, ethical, political and legal impacts of advances in AI.


After Canada, 27 other countries, in addition to the European Union, have followed suit and have published their own guidelines for AI governance.

In January 2020[3], 18 other countries were working on their own strategic documents, including Italy, which commissioned a group of experts to define a framework of proposals for an Italian strategy for artificial intelligence.


What is Italian and European role in this search for direction and meaning?


The analytical and applicative approach of a technology is always related to the cultural dimension in which it is introduced and to the socio-anthropological dimension of the individuals who are called to interact with it. Artificial intelligence plays a predominant role in the future management of the planet and applied social policies to face humanitarian crises, make up for the scarcity of environmental sources, become a tool and agent for the control and analysis of political-economic flows since in the of reproductive technologies, intelligent systems, machine to machine, automata capable of perceiving space and presences in them and all the advances inherent in the sector, the artificial intelligence society is the first to undergo a constant revolution, immanent and immediate that applies functional and decision-making processes that are often ultra-accelerated with respect to the person's abilities, producing institutional, structural and relational changes.

The ethical reflection required of the person and the institutions does not therefore assume only a microsociological perspective but contemplates a globalized and institutionalized collective dimension that has been further expanded by algorithms, creating hypotheses of future scenarios not only between human beings but between the latter and the technologies absorbed in everyday life.

In the European context, the decision-making process implemented by Brussels, although appearing slower than in the Canadian, Chinese or Japanese framework, has managed to absorb a plurality of perspectives and opinions to shape the development of technology in the best interest of EU citizenship.

The key themes for the development of the sector for the EU are certainly in encouraging research and improving economic-industrial performance in order to guarantee a new level of well-being to the person without harming their fundamental rights, declining two main characteristics: excellence and reliability. The same strategy for artificial intelligence in Europe of 2018 asserted in the prologue that the A.I. it is already an integral part of our lives and that we can no longer separate it from our daily actions. The spread of the European initiative is certainly based on respect for values, since, like any transformative technology, attention must be paid to decision-making processes, ethical questions and social responsibility.

This vision rewards the education and awareness of citizens towards the understanding of intelligent algorithms, their applications in robotics and, therefore, in sharing space with an entity other than human. In addition, there is an ongoing evaluation process of the legal frameworks of each member country with the aim of assessing whether they are appropriate in terms of safety and suitability for the large-scale use of these tools, promoting both a community and international debate. The EU wants to center its strategy in I.A. in the context of the myths, values ​​and models of behavior that will mark the outlines of an increasingly digitalized society that wants to protect human beings and their rights: an artificial technology as an ally for collective progress.

Thus the Italian perspective seeks to follow European directives by choosing an approach that integrates the search for an immanent technology combined with the adoption of sustainable development policies that place the protection of the environment and the person at the center of national policies. The publication of the "Italian strategy for artificial intelligence" outlines three guidelines:

  • examination of the theoretical and applicative framework of AI. internationally;
  • statement of the key elements for a long-term strategy;
  • governance proposals with particular attention to monitoring and implementation policies.

For Italy, the A.I. represents a sector that could help the population and the government solve structural problems: research funds, digitalization of the PA, automation of the industrial sector, monitoring and protection of the environment and its natural resources. In conclusion, the objectives aim to strengthen the compound of universities, research institutions, not only technical but also humanistic applications for the education of the population in technologies. The constitution of the symbolic universe for AI, in the European panorama, is that of algorithms that become allies to understand further aspects of social problems and that can represent the sum of our knowledge, assuming its own value that can manifest itself dialogically and continuously evolution.


The reliability of algorithms


We are talking about AI, opportunities and risks. Clearly, at this stage, we can no longer just guide the next 10-20 years economic innovation progress and its connected radical changes.

The challenge is bigger than ever and involves the rules of coexistence, privacy, respect for minorities, equality, governance of the infosphere, our new public space of society.


How to deal with an economic system that is fed more and more by data and leads to “mass surveillance”[4] activities? How to eliminate bias in algorithms that create unfair outcomes as racial prejudices, gender and social injustices.


Once again, Canada is among the first countries to adopt institutional reaction measures to the aggressive and indiscriminate use of AI, recognizing the limits of current laws, as happened with the Clearview AI case[5], the American technological company which, violating the laws Canadian Privacy Policy, collected photos of Canadian citizens without consent. Biometric data was sold to private companies, and the US company's facial recognition software was supplied to Canadian law enforcement agencies, including the RCMP, Toronto Police, and Calgary Police, used to identify perpetrators and victims. of crimes.


More recently in Europe, as part of the European strategy for artificial intelligence, the European Commission published on 21 April 2021 the proposal for a regulation on the European approach to artificial intelligence which identifies a first European legal framework on AI.

The EU thus introduces the concept of risk of artificial intelligence measurable on a scale ranging from "minimal" to "unacceptable" and recognizes the need to consider the ethical reliability of the technology among the criteria for validating innovation with the aim to safeguard EU values ​​and fundamental rights and the safety of users.


Having a critical perspective on algorithms doesn't mean being techno-skeptical, it means preserve equity and democracy. We also have to keep in mind that the risk is compromising technological progress with constraint rules, up to the point of a moral thyranny.

Should we define an objective ethics for AI?


Considering what has been said so far, it can be understood that until the first half of the twentieth century, ethics had as subject / object of study the human being in relationship with himself and with the other, with his own private life and public, but from the end of the twentieth century, we turn to ethics to be able to study, elaborate and understand the new moral questions that arose, more and more rapidly, evoked by technological progress, by scientific discoveries, by the demands of the social individual to constantly improve their standard of living, from everyday life to the challenges of disease and death.

If up to that moment, the person was projected only on the need to discuss their ethical rights, as the only sensible and socially contemplated actor, in a system in which technology was only a producer of passive tools, with the advent of intelligence artificial and its universe of innovations - intelligent algorithms, digital home assistants, social or industrial robots, chatbots and other systems equipped with logic and cognitive abilities - has led the individual towards the observation that, in his development, as a potentially autonomous artifact capable of learning from human society that is already having ethical impacts on social systems.


How is an algorithm capable of making decisions?
What effects does artificial intelligence have on the individual's daily choices?
What are the ethical and regulatory implications of the actions of an intelligent machine?


These are questions that are addressed to the whole society and to its system of understanding and analysis of the impact that the progress of artificial intelligence will have in the future, given that, already now, with its imperfections, slowdowns and its system denomination 'weak', multiple aspects of the human are progressively changing.

Ethical values ​​are strictly dependent on the socio-cultural context in which they develop and are strengthened with the ideological tradition to which they belong, therefore, I believe that seeking an objective model is detrimental to the progress of ethical research. Certainly, it will be possible to adopt principles, as I indicate in my text (Ethics and artificial intelligence) that can become structural for the adoption of regulatory charters with ethical purposes.


Geopolitics and Artificial Intelligence


As a topic of global interest, the technological revolution, and in participating in the impact of algorithms on our lives, relationships and society, also outlines an unprecedented geopolitical dimension of international relations.


Just as Europe is committed to defining its own guidelines for managing the 4.0 world and building an innovative European ecosystem that escapes the pressure exerted by the United States in the west and China in the east and their opposing models, we have always plus the need to define a range of rights to be protected to protect against AI risks and to find reliable partners through existing cooperation environments as in new spaces to be imagined and built.


A debate is open on outlining minimum standards of education and training, also understood as awareness of knowledge, as regards technological skills, especially for those citizens without a technological background, but also as regards the preparation of developers and new entrepreneurs in interdisciplinary way, including philosophy and ethics to guide design thinking in an inclusive and equitable sense.

The birth of university courses in "humanistic computer science", also in Italy, or projects to raise awareness of the ethics of AI aimed at makers and innovators are heading in this direction.


The comparison between the good practices designed and the conversations already started in national contexts, between governments, universities, researchers, on the subject of artificial intelligence is really to be hoped for.

Last year, the Centro Studi Italia Canada had the pleasure of highlighting the Business Forum Italia Canada on AI, promoted by the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Canada (ICCC), which saw Italians and Canadians discuss the contribution of big data, artificial intelligence and cyber security to the construction of a fair, sustainable and economically advantageous post-Covid-19 context.

In this 2021 edition, The Centro Studi Italia-Canada will focus on AI Ethics thanks to your contribution and research.

It will surely be an opportunity to deepen the relationship between two countries with very close cultural and democratic contexts. The Canadian model is expressed with a value system very similar to ours and a dialogue at the academic level, as well as political and economic. Canada is a champion in the technological context and represents an opportunity for italian innovation ecosystem and, at same time, for developing a common AI ethical framework.


How do we move from personal codes of conduct to guidelines for collective action rules?


In the study of the relationship between the individual and the machine, the dimension of superposition and fusion have become increasingly prominent, ever since McLuhan (2015) defined technology as a natural extension of the nervous system of the human being and a network that encompasses society and its people. relationships or Donna Haraway who describes, with the help of the mythical / real figure of the spider Primoa Cthulhu, the artificial society as the era of eternal connections, of invisible communication, of sprawling digital structures, considering the world-structure as a holistic system which needs the person as part of a much more complex mechanism and which does not place itself at its center, together with a technological pervasiveness that can support the human being in the protection of the planet, as indicated by Edward Tenner (2004) in his anthropological history of science that has extended to all technological and artificial creations the power to shape and model the structure to the social individual and his institutions, to the point of taking root in his way of reading the present and imagining the future.

The artificial society can be considered as the mirror of a human synthesis towards the construction of its own automated alter-ego, the creation of those intelligent robots which, thanks to the implementation of learning algorithms on mechanical organisms, are able to replace the biological life in the empowerment and management of the most complex problems that require speed in decisions, becoming the perfect collaborators towards an uncertain future, in which that singularity could manifest itself that could make them autonomous and semi-conscious. The human being is represented as a complex result of his inventions, his tools, his technologies that have followed one another along the historical line, as well as the codes of conduct that are cultural constructions and moral paradigms that are assembled with increasingly innovative components. to adapt to the progress of rights, norms, evolution.


Last question…

What prompted you to be involved in this research area and what feedback did you receive from colleagues and students?

The imagination and its infinite perspectives are the placenta that has fueled, since my childhood, the desire to decline the technological progress that I received from cinema, literature, the arts in a philosophical application context. From the vision of Metropolis to the Matrix, from Ghost in the Shell to Evangelion, from Dick to Naomi Mitchison I learned what the declinations were not only of science fiction and progress but also the possibility of using these worlds / tools for the understanding of rights, responsibilities and fields of study for a democratic and peaceful struggle in the name of democratic rights for every person and every social group. Artificial intelligence is, for me, a distorting mirror that can allow the individual to observe a different reflection than the conventional norms to which he is used; it is a distant planet from which to learn new ethical perspectives and cultural variations of knowledge; it is a cog that will enhance human understanding of the future problems of societies that will manifest themselves in postmodernity. Furthermore, I believe that technology, with its constant mutations, random glitches, its protean capacity will be a tool to represent all identities embedded in human nature by installing critical debates on social justice, power relations and political representativeness. Surely, to date, they are topics of interest also for the academic community, even if five or six years ago I found some resistaNCE in the social and humanistic sectors. Of broader support was the interest from colleagues from Canada or Poland, with whom I have established solid collaborations. On the student side, they are all and all interested in the topic, both in the courses I carry out but also in the request for a degree thesis on related topics.




Edmondo Grassi is a researcher in General Sociology and teaches Sociology of Cultural and Communicative Processes and General Sociology and Health at the Department of Human Sciences and Promotion of Quality of Life of the San Raffaele Telematic University. He collaborates with the Department of Education of the Roma Tre University for FAMI projects (from 2019) and the EduIA Laboratory - Artificial Intelligence Education (from the year of foundation, 2018). He earned his PhD in Theoretical and Applied Social Research with a thesis on “Ethics and Artificial Intelligence”. Currently, he collaborates with the research groups C.I.S.U. (Interuniversity Center in Utopian Studies) and "Via Europea della Fiaba (European network of studies on the collective imagination and European folk roots). He is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Sociologie (Edizioni Altravista) and of the educational series Education and Artificial Intelligence (RomaTrE-Press), Sociological Attractions (Cleup) and Immaginari Sociali (Armando). He was a member as a researcher for FAMI and BRIC projects. He deals with ethical changes produced by the use of technologies, their contemporary social applications and their imaginative projections, communication, postmodern identity, gender, posthumanism and the thought of complexity. He has published his first monograph entitled “Ethics and artificial intelligence. Open Issues ”(2020) and multiple scientific articles on moral and technology, posthuman and gender issues.



Nadia Deisori is a journalist, communication consultant and instructional designer for public administrations, research centers and private sector. She designes, with a “digital human” approach, digital spaces, communication stretegies, educational pathways, events, matching humanities with technologies skills, languages of the digital transformation era. She holds a degree in Politics Science (International relationships) and she have been working in digital field since 2008.

She is author for the Centro Studi Italia Canada on education and innovation ecosystem.


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