Artificial intelligence, a new infrastructure for the world we now live in

An interview with Professor Mariarosaria Taddeo, one of the 100 most influential women in technology in the UK

Mariarosaria Taddeo

Mariarosaria Taddeo is Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, where she is Deputy Director of the Digital Ethics Lab. Her work focuses on the ethical analysis of artificial intelligence, digital innovation, cybersecurity, and cyber conflict. In 2020 Mariarosaria was chosen to represent the UK as a member of the NATO Exploratory Team on Operational Ethics, and the same year ComputerWeekly named her one of the 100 most influential women in technology in the UK.

“During the first twenty years of my career, I never thought about being a woman. I worked because I wanted to work.” Given that Marisrosaria Taddeo has been recognised as one of the 100 most influential women in technology in the United Kingdom and one of the top 100 women in the world in the field artificial intelligence and ethics, her words take on an even stronger meaning. Greater recognition of the role of women in the workplace and particularly in science subjects is one of Professor Mariarosaria Taddeo’s battles. She is now a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford and deputy director of the Digital Ethics Lab.

“As I became more senior,” she adds, “and also started to take non-peer, but more senior roles, I realised that there is this filter that the world puts on us. There’s a kind of mirror that reminds you what your roles should be, and I learned to deal with that later on.

Then because I don’t care, I used to ignore them before, and I still ignore them now, as well we should. My ideal world is one in which gender identity becomes as relevant as the length of your hair.”

Professor Taddeo is studying the frontier of innovation, where the artificial intelligence of the future is designed.

Professor, what are the frontiers of artificial intelligence today? Where are the latest discoveries taking us?

Artificial intelligence has had a strange history because we started thinking about it in the 1950s. The first time we saw the expression ‘artificial intelligence’ in a research proposal was in 1956. Then, there was what we could call ‘a summer of artificial intelligence’ with a burst of research funds. But they slowly trickled away. Then there was a ‘long winter’ until in 2012 the research funding resumed and the science became the artificial intelligence we are talking about today. Over these past ten years it has spread very widely, to the point that AI is now in our pockets. We use it on our cell phones, our televisions, our computers. And we will be using it more and more.

When we talk about artificial intelligence that allows us to read reality, we are talking about technology that allows us to understand the dynamics of the environmental crisis, to help us cope with it; that allows us to collect genomics data and understand the origin of diseases like cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s and try to treat them. These are challenges we must win.”

What are the new opportunities that artificial intelligence creates for multinational companies? Think for example in the case of Webuild in the area of large-scale construction….

“We live digital societies that produce massive quantities of data. According to estimates, by 2025, the amount of data produced every day will fill 200 million DVDs. This data is not important in itself; it is important if we can read it because it is a snapshot of reality. Without artificial intelligence, we cannot read this data. The great opportunity that artificial intelligence gives us is to delve into the complexity of the environment around us. For a company like Webuild, this is critical. Not only for actual construction, but also because this in-depth reading of reality also applies to processes, it also applies to the organisation of things.

For a multinational company that works with thousands of suppliers all over the world managing all sorts of crises from ecological to pandemics across time zones, it’s a huge advantage to have the help of artificial intelligence to deal with these dynamics.

Moreover, the long infrastructure construction processes require massive calculations, also factoring in environmental variables. Here again artificial intelligence helps us in that direction allows us to be more efficient and more effective.”

What, on the other hand, are the major risks posed by artificial intelligence?

“One of the open questions certainly concerns its effects on the world of work. However, analyses on the impact of artificial intelligence on the labor market should be taken with a grain of salt because there are so many variables that are part of this scenario that it is difficult to make forecasts of its impact.

I think that the interaction between artificial intelligence and the workplace is important because it will be one of the channels through which digitisation will transform tomorrow’s society even more. Certain jobs will be different. I don’t mean that humans will be replaced, but their function will be different.”

What are the limitations (if any) that need to be placed on new breakthroughs in digital innovation?

“Innovation is always a bit of a double-edged sword. Think of the atomic bomb and nuclear energy. I don’t think it’s a question of limits being set ex-ante, that is, things that we should not do regardless, that are immoral things. Instead, I think we need a watchful eye that is able to direct the process of innovation as it happens. Technology and digital innovation have become a structural element of our societies. We call ourselves digital societies because we cannot do without these services. It is as if, I always say, digital technology has become an infrastructure of the reality in which we live.”

How do you think a mindful use of artificial intelligence can change the world of infrastructure? Starting from the design phase?

“We imagine a building where artificial intelligence allows us to understand the proper use of electricity, the variation of temperatures, and helps us manage it by using this data. It basically makes life not only easier but also more sustainable. And similarly, we can imagine roads that we can equip with sensors that generate the data we need to constantly monitor and maintain them. Smart cities can install sensors to intelligently distribute data that artificial intelligence allows us to use to improve infrastructure, services, and policies. It won’t happen in six months, but in 10 years I can’t imagine anyone not building a neighborhood, a bridge, or a road without being able to use data to manage the infrastructure in an efficient and sustainable way.”