Nexa Center Annual Report 2020

Presented in 2020 during the Board of Trustees meeting of the Nexa Center


In the final part of last year, the life of the Nexa Center was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. Luckily, none of the staff members and of the members of the fellows’ community was ill, but some additional uncertainties on how to find funding in the future had to be faced. At the moment, the problem does not seem to be connected to the money coming from the Politecnico, that are used to maintain part of the staff. But for what concerns the project proposals to the EU and to other subjects, they dra-matically diminished if compared to the previous years, as it was strategically decided not to risk that they are ultimately not fi-nanced, due to a possible decision of using them for other purposes. Nevertheless, some prestigious research activities were car-ried on, such as for TIM, the main Italian Telecommunication company, on the ethical and legal aspects of the use of AI in TLS, and for Agid, the Agency for Digital Italy of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, on assessing and comparing open source software, both technically and economically, in view of assisting Public Administrations in acquiring it. Such collaborations (not all of them but works of this kind) will go on in the coming year and the Nexa Center is confident it will find a way to overcome the economic crisis to come.

Such an optimism is also due to the fact that in the last months the importance of the Nexa Center activities was appreciated at a national level, because of the work of prof. Marco Ricolfi as Chairman of the Permanent Advisory Committee to the Italian Culture Ministry and his appointment for tasks such as the adoption in Italy of the European copyright. But also because of the decision of writing an open letter to the Italian Ministry of Innovation, aimed at defining the principles upon which the Nexa community would accept to use digital technologies to monitor citizens contacts with persons potentially affected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the development of the coronavirus contagion. In fact, in Italy, as in many other countries in the world, the government decided to recur to an app and therefore, ultimately to digital surveillance technologies to fight the pandemic and the Center was concerned on how the tool may be used or misused. Its open letter was subscribed by hundreds of influential scholars and people involved in the debate on digital technologies and society and it took the Nexa Center under the mass media lime lights.

Hopefully, such activities will be useful also to give more visibility to the Nexa Center research and teaching on Artificial Intelli-gence and Society, Technology and Society, Internet Power and Rights and Education. In particular, for what concerns AI and society, in the last year much was done on fairness in machine learning, specifically in the ranking systems domain, on the political visions of society that stand behind the fairness criteria of the algorithms we resort to, on the impact of poor data quality and biases in the data on the automatic decisions made by software applications, and on AI in the TLC domain, from an ethical point of view, but also examining the emerging guidelines at European and national level and reflecting on the ethical codes adopted by companies.

For what concerns technology and society, the research for Agid on the adoption of open source software by the State admin-istrations was already mentioned, while for what concerns Internet power and rights, the DECODE project on increasing digital sovereignty of European citizens came to an end, with an important dissemination final event held in Turin, which was very suc-cessful and once again took some of the Nexa Center research topics under the mass media lime lights. Moreover, a very promising research line was started on the laws of connected drones controlled by the network, which is a very hot topic in the city of Turin, where the authorities are experimenting the use of drones in many fields. Finally, the research on payment channel networks for blockchain scalability was continued and in this context CLoTH was developed, a simulator for payment channel networks, with the aim of identifying issues, analyzing solutions and steering future developments in this field.

For what concerns education, the Nexa Center continued to coordinate the Erasmus+ project Edu-Hack, that intends to support teachers’ professional development through open online courses, and it went on in the development of the Geranium platform, to reduce the barriers for accessing scientific publications by citizens and to create new collaboration opportunities between re-searchers of the Politecnico of Turin. Moreover, for what concerns the teaching activities, further than the usual courses (Digital revolution, Digital technologies and society, New media languages), a new one was launched – Data Ethics and Protection – a Master Course of Science in Data Science and Engineering at the Politecnico and another course will start next year – Semiotics of digital cultures – in the Master Degree on Communication and Media Cultures at the University of Turin. Always at the University of Turin, the Nexa Center gave courses on digital revolution in the Master of Journalism. This was also the topic of Being digital, a course given in the project Riconnessioni of Fondazione per la scuola (Compagnia di San Paolo), to the teachers of primary and secondary schools of Turin.

In the teaching activities, but also in the researches mentioned above, it is clear the strong relationship between the Nexa Center and the territory of Turin, which was strengthened with the Festival della Tecnologia (Festival of technology), organized to celebrate the 160th year from the foundation of the Politecnico. The event took hundreds of experts on technology and society to talk to thousands citizens and it was such a huge success that the major of the city, together with the rector of the Politecnico and other authorities decided to make it a permanent event, giving birth to Biennale Tecnologia, that will take place every two years and that will start this year, in November 2020, under the direction of prof. Juan Carlos De Martin and Luca De Biase.

Biennale Tecnologia is maybe the most visible fruit (in terms of popularity) of the Nexa Center attitude towards interdisciplinarity, as this event would not be possible without putting together knowledge coming from all the research fields on technology and society. Technology and society is certainly the hot topic for what concerns the future of the Nexa Center as its attention is shifting on it, hence broadening its sight, which will no more be restricted only on Internet and society. This is the reason why the Nexa Center has decided to collaborate with Scienza Nuova, a new research center co-founded by the Politecnico of Turin and by the University of Turin. Together with FULL, the Future Urban Legacy Lab of the Politecnico of Turin, in which it works with architects, economists and other engineers, Scienza Nuova is another example of how the Nexa Center is trying to open itself to the rest of the scientific community.

It is clear that the coming year will be a very interesting one. In the pandemic crisis, digital technologies have proved – if there was still need of it – that they are at the core of our society. This made more visible their strengths, but also their weaknesses and all the problems they may take to our lives. In general, people looked on technology and on science to overcome the threat took by nature on their survival, as it has always happened. But, once again, this contributed to show strengths and weaknesses of technology and science. A lot of work will have to be done to re-take our lives to normality and a huge effort will have to be taken to think about what “normality” means. The pandemic crisis opened a time in which many old paradigms may change and the Nexa Center looks forward to contributing to the reflection needed to go in the right direction.

Juan Carlos De Martin and Marco Ricolfi – Faculty Directors