Nexa Center Annual Report 2019

Presented in 2019 during the Board of Trustees meeting of the Nexa Center


In the last year, the Nexa Center for Internet & Society strengthened its competence on Artificial Intelligence, both in terms of research and development. As usual, the research activities were multi-interdisciplinary, focusing on data and algorithms ethics, politics, law and semantic modelling through deep learning. The daily interaction between engineers and humanists took to some promising results, as a new research line on the potential political conse- quences of the use of AI tools based on different definitions of fairness was opened. At the same time, the other research lines started last year were carried on, on the inequalities provoked by the use of AI in cities and on how to understand if AI is projected to be fair. All these studies have been well received by the scientific community and will be continued in the coming years. Moreover, the Nexa Center will keep working on the laws that regulate AI, as it did this year under the request of TIM (Telecom Italia Mobile) on the privacy and ethical critical issues that AI raises in telecommunications, showing how such problems are faced in the European GDPR, in the e-privacy directive and in its revision process.

The research conducted on semantic modelling through deep learning took to another important achievement: the development of a new version of TellMeFirst, an open source tool designed for the semantic classification of documents with Linked Open Data (LOD), which was implemented with Relational Graph Convolutional Networks (R-GCN). Imagined for helping the Research Area of Politecnico di Torino create new collaboration opportunities between researchers and to reduce barriers for accessing Politecnico publications by citizens, this instrument proved to be very flexible, as it can be applied in many other fields. For example, there is the possibility of using it on a database of the publications of the Network of Centers on Internet and Society, which our Center is part of, together with many prestigious international universities, to open the academic research to the public sphere, so that scien- tific knowledge can be used to improve the formation of public opinion. To do so, some requests for funds were presented, some of which were rejected, while others are under evaluation.

The attempt to attract funds for the research and development activity, focusing on the design of digital tools based on AI, but also on the blockchain, from an interdisciplinary point of view, was one of the main activities of the Nexa Center, this year. For example, a project (URBICC) which was based on the collaboration of semioticians and engineers, on the use of AI to help citizens work together on the creation of a common imaginary about their life in towns was submitted to the European Commission. Also, another project (DEMOCREATE) was presented, on the use of AI and of the blockchain to safeguard and favor cultural diversity in the European digital single market. The Nexa Center contributed to design, together with the architetcs, geographers and economists of Full (Future Urban Leg- acy Lab of the Politecnico di Torino), a Digital Open Urban Twin (DOUT) of the town of Turin, to collect and analyze big data coming from the territory. In short, our Center aimed at transforming its research into the development of some digital tools to be funded from public and private institutions.

The other main activity of the Nexa Center, in the last year, was to support Politecnico di Torino in its attempt to better understand and then to explain the relationship between technology and society. This meant to work on two major projects, Festival della Tecnologia and SUSST (Scienze Umane e Sociali per le Scienze e la Tecnologia). The former is a three days international event, directed by prof. Juan Carlos De Martin, which will take place in Turin from the 7th to the 10th of November 2019, to celebrate the 160th year from the foundation of the Politecnico and to show citizens how technical knowledge can influence our lives. The latter is an attempt to create a group of humanist scholars that can work side by side with engineers, conducting researches with them and teaching engineering students how to catch the deep cultural and societal meaning of what they will do in their professional life. To some extent, the Nexa Center has always embodied the philosophy that is behind these projects – for example, in the last year prof. Juan Carlos De Martin launched a new master degree course called Digital technologies and society – and this is the reason why Politecnico recurred to it to implement them.

On the specific relationship between computer science and society, in the last year the Nexa Center continued to work with AgCom, the Italian Communication Authority, to safeguard pluralism and information correctness on dig- ital platforms, especially during electoral campaigns. Moreover, it continued its collaboration within the DECODE and VIRTEU European projects, respectively on how to increase digital sovereignty of European citizens and on how to use ethics in the design process of IoT objects. Marco Conoscenti concluded his Ph.D. research aimed at facing the well-known blockchain scalability issue, by analyzing capabilities and limitations of payment channel networks such as the Lighting Network. Furthermore, the Center conducted a research financed from TIM (Telecom Italia Mobile), to study the relevant legal framework for UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) operations and the main legal issues raised by the civilian use of drones. Finally, it worked on the new Copyright Directive voted at the European parlia- ment, a controversial package of legislation designed to update copyright law in Europe for the internet age, organ- izing seminars and taking a stand on it. This turned to be very helpful to draft the proposal in the above mentioned DEMOCREATE European Project, which is focused on the functioning of the European digital single market.

There are many other activities we would like to mention, such as the Edu-Hack Erasmus+ project on the use of open source digital technologies to improve teaching and learning in schools and universities, that this year entered its operative phase, with some very interesting results, but also the first Nexa Center’s fellows weekend organized in September 2018, that proved to be a wonderful occasion to keep together our community, with the aim of finding new ideas, visions and projects to be developed. Anyway, let us conclude our foreword with an announcement we are very proud of, as one of us – prof. Marco Ricolfi – has just been appointed as Permanent Advisory Committee to the Italian Culture Ministry. This great achievement is of course also connected with the activity of the Nexa Center and will have an impact on it in the future. We will do our best to match the high expectations this new duty takes with it.

Juan Carlos De Martin and Marco Ricolfi – Faculty Directors