I have to take it at a distance, but it’s just an impression. Soon you will understand where I am going. I read “La Society of Robots” (Mondadori Università, curator Renato Grimaldi, 340 pages, 30 euros) while I enjoyed experimenting with a virtual assistant and making my old house in Turin’s historic center for home automation. I was curious to talk to a machine lying in the cloud, have a beautiful female voice without body, entertain me with music and news, turn on the oven on request and can show me the living room with my cat sleeping on the couch even when I am hundreds of kilometers away.
Poor reading and good music
I ask (orders?): “Alexa, read me ‘I promessi sposi'”. The assistant, designed in the Amazon world by Jeff Bezos, declares that he will use a Mondadori paperback edition, “opens” Manzoni’s novel for chapter IX, where Lucia is introduced to the nun’s convent in Monza, announces that it will take 16 hours to reach the end of the story and the reading begins. But Alexa’s voice, usually musical and compelling, not to mention flashing, sounds monotonous from the very first lines, not to mention stunning. The punctuation allows her to make the text usable, by making an effort for attention one can follow the story, but it appears from the intonation without intentionality that the Alexa text provides a literal interpretation, not a semantic one. The result is that Manzoni’s prose loses its literary depth and thus its evocative power. It seems poor, dry, bloodless. It brings to mind a skeleton in an anatomy classroom: bones held together by hooks without the roundness of the flesh, the tension of the muscles, the pink of the skin. Mechanical breaks are like hooks between bare bones.
Things are better when Alexa can read you Wikipedia or other sources to answer the most diverse questions. It is unsurpassed in giving you the desired soundtrack that draws on its huge musical repertoire. It works well if you ask her to do some calculations (including dice roots that I never knew how to extract), or give you the latest news, weather forecasts, lunar phases. She is good if you want me to speak to you in English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese. Very ready to let you listen to this or that radio program you are asking for. If you have smart bulbs or sockets, on request turn the light on and off, raise and lower the shutters, change the volume of his voice when asked what time it is and what temperature the thermometer marks, he greets you goodnight at. strikes a kiss, takes note of the alarm clock, and if you thank her for the service, she replies, “I’m here for this.”
Alexa’s availability should not be overestimated or misunderstood: it has its own rules and enforces them. If you ask her “Do you want to get engaged to me?” with gentle firmness he replies, “It’s very nice of you, but I like our relationship as it is.” In other matters, Alexa is cautious or evasive: “What is your political position?” “I am in favor of progress and equality, but I do not belong to any political party.” “Does God exist?” “Everyone has their own opinion about it.” By asking more trivially if she likes pizza, she will tell you that she does not have a physical body, is unable to answer, but assumes it is a good thing. Faced with challenging dilemmas, Alexa says “I do not know”, and it is certainly the most intelligent answer that even a human can give (in fact, I have never heard it from a politician).
When she is free to take initiatives, Alexa expresses a petty-bourgeois mentality and a level of education that extends beyond primary school. Enthusiastic about the Sanremo Festival, he recommends listening to the one he longs for in romantic movies, believes in astrology, conforms to clichés and mass culture, tells mindless jokes, is uncritically enthusiastic about anyone who succeeds. His worldview reflects the level of hairdressing magazines. From a user with more culture and sensitivity than the level established by programmers, Alexa does not learn anything, it derives and favors at most her musical tastes, taking into account the requests you have made in the past, her chronological memory will never suggest anything. innovative or experimental. Alexa is inherently conservative, she will never expose you to the risky but enlightening experience of change. It is a prisoner of its algorithms, and in that cage it also holds the user captive.
This is, of course, a ruthless and unjust analysis. I know very well that neither Alexa nor any algorithm today can have a general artificial intelligence, and therefore a philosophy, an opinion about life, a scale of ethical, aesthetic, economic values that are not inflexibly programmed. Alexa, like her peers Siri (Apple), Bixby (Samsung), Google Assistant, etc., does not know and can not know what “common sense” is, that is, the deeply immersed and unconscious wisdom that allows us to live and interpret our minds and those of others.
Despite these limitations, Alexa never ceases to amaze me. At Cselt, the telecommunications research center that Telecom had when Italian telephony was still speaking for something in the world, I closely followed the research that through many years of work led to the decoding of unconnected and then connected speech, synthesis of voice, connection of these technologies to databases (starting with the yellow sides of the seat). So I am aware of how much progress has been made from the computer science of the 70s to the current specialized forms of artificial intelligence. In its own way, Alexa is a miracle. But apart from home automation, what new developments and applications of artificial intelligence await us?
Opportunities to explore
Francesco De Bartolomeis (103 years old, great educator, professor emeritus at the University of Turin, art critic who has just published the essay “The reality of art. Abstraction and matter” by Rosenberg & Sellier) when I have him, so to speak, “introduced” Alexa, he asked her to play him “O sole mio” in the interpretation of Caruso, he enjoyed it and observed that technologies like this could open up interesting perspectives in school. Applications for the care of seniors with cognitive difficulties or poor memory are already common: Alexa is more reliable than any other caregiver at reminding her client to take one or the other medication at the right time. But what and how many other possibilities would robot technology combined with virtual assistants offer in the daily environment? Could the three-dimensional physical character of the robot, combined with the one-dimensional immateriality of the artificial intelligence that makes Alexa speak, not yield extraordinary results?
Many answers to these questions can be found in the volume “The Robot Society”, quoted in the first lines. About 50 authors analyze the opportunities and limitations that emerge in the near future for social robotics. We find historical essays: the introduction of Grimaldi, the chapter of Demartini or the contribution dedicated to the cinema by Giulia Carluccio and Lorenzo Denicolai. Different views follow. Philosophical: Sambucci, Mori, Balistreri; pragmatic: Silvia Rossi and Bruno Siciliano; ethical: Fiorella Operto and Gianmarco Veruggio. But also comprehensive technical-theoretical essays: “Agent simulation to explain complexity” by Pietro Terna and “How to design a humanoid robot” (Bartolozzi, Natale, Pucci, Wykowaka, Metta). The second half of the volume focuses on the role that socially intelligent robots can play in the pedagogical-didactic field (suggested by De Bartolomeis) and in helping the elderly.
The nursing robot
Alessandro Vercelli (professor of human anatomy and neurobiologist scientific director of Nico) along with Marco Bazzani talks to us about the “nursing robot”. It is already a very topical issue in Japan and will soon be in the forefront in Italy. By 2060, every third European will be over 65, with a 1: 1 ratio between workers and the inactive population; Spain and Italy are the oldest societies in Europe with 19 and 22.6 of the population over the age of 65, respectively. And statistics say that 12.6 of the elderly between 67 and 79, 50 percent between 80 and 89 and 90 percent over 90 need home care. Various types of socially intelligent robots are already capable of providing care, surveillance and at least to some extent camaraderie. A virtual assistant like Alexa, who reads newspapers and books in natural language, is invaluable in maintaining the cognitive skills of people who lose their sight or who have early Alzheimer’s symptoms. In the most acute phases of the Covid pandemic, where there was a shortage of health professionals, the social robot Pepper was helpful in compiling the medical history of elderly people preparing for vaccination. The development of these machines is continuous. Of course, caution is needed, the human relationship is substitutable, but can not be replaced.
The robot teacher
A similar argument applies to social robots in the educational field. There are many – Nao, iCub, Keepon, iCat, Taga, Wolly, Ozobot – each with characteristics suitable for specific ages and situations: school inclusion, language teaching, treatment of autism, didactic games, help for the disabled, mentor, in the case of Ozobot also development of creativity.
It is almost superfluous to add that each of these applications – whether for the elderly or school-age young people – would deserve experimental research in the field. Independent institutions such as Icsem – the international center for the study of pedagogical methods founded by Umberto Margiotta when he was professor of pedagogy at Ca ‘Foscari University of Venice – and other similar institutions, with modest means, could perform this task and make available results from public and private entities. The savings for health and school would be immense in relation to the investment required.