AI: towards a critical utopia

26th of June – 2nd of July 2019

Course description

It is commonly understood that AI is one of the most disruptive technologies being developed. It may affect almost every aspect of society – from knowledge sharing to economic interactions, from making art crafts to finding cures for our diseases – and of personal life – from making friends, to finding a partner, from dealing with the pain for the loss of beloved people, to helping us managing our households through smart objects. Understanding the relationship between AI and society is a complex endeavour, since its shape and its evolution are not an immutable technological law, but instead the consequence of specific choices, both private and public, that could very well change over time and may of course influence its sustainability.

Some powerful politicians like Vladimir Putin have declared that who will lead the researches in the field of AI, will lead the world, and of course many funds are coming from the armies (Harari, 2015) and from governments that seem to be working for monitoring and controlling us (Greenwald, 2015; Zuboff, 2018). Many others come from the finance world and are meant to increase the incomes of a few rich persons, regardless the risks ran by the rest of the population (O’Neil, 2016). There is much to fear the coming of a dystopian age, but we know that in times of big technological changes, debates on the dangers for the future are frequent and, in a certain way, necessary, because they help us focussing on the problems that must be faced to create a better world.

However, most of the times good technologies have improved our lives, so it is up to be critical and aware, without giving up to the goal we have always pursued: using our technological tools for the good of mankind. In a time in which most of the reflections on the development of digital technologies are dystopian (Morozov, 2011), we propose to work on a more positive, even if problematic vision: a “critical utopia”, a utopia which must be aware of the limits of a too optimistic vision of the future.

Schedule in brief

  • Wednesday 26th June, 09.00-13.00
  • Thursday 27th June, 09.30-13.00
  • Friday 28th June, 09.00-17.30
  • Monday 1st July, 09.00-12-30
  • Tuesday 2nd July, 10.00-12.30 (exam)



The subscription to the lectures is free of charge. The first 10 students enrolled will be covered all costs of extra-educational activities.

Admission and attendance

Admissions will be communicated by 21st June, 2019. The participation entitles the students of Politecnico di Torino to 1,5 credits. Requirements to pass the course: pass the exam.

Programme of the lectures

Wednesday 26th June

09.00-09.30 | Welcome speech and introduction of the school
Prof. Juan Carlos De Martin, Politecnico di Torino (Italy)

09.30-11.00 | Engineers (re)discover ethics and politics
Prof. Juan Carlos De Martin, Politecnico di Torino (Italy)
One of the consequences of the student and political movements in the US and Europe of the ‘960s was that scholars (engineers included) started to see themselves more fully part of the political body of society. As such, they felt a keener sense of responsibility regarding consequences of their research and their teaching, leading to a wave of socially-aware initiatives, which left tangible traces even in mainstream
scientific journals (e.g., the IEEE Transactions on Communications).
At the beginning of the ‘980s, however, when the political winds drastically changed direction, most scholars went back to conceive themselves as “neutral” professionals, with no specific ethical and social obligations regarding their research and teaching. During the last few years, however, in coincidence with the crisis of the so-called “Washington Consensus” regime, engineers are again entering a phase of soul searching about their social responsibilities. The soul searching initially focused on ethics, but I will argue that ethics is just a stepping stone towards more explicitly political stances.”

11.00-11.30 | Coffee break

11.30-13.00 | Fairness in automated decisions systems
Dr. Antonio Vetrò, Politecnico di Torino (Italy)
AI promises to substitute experts in a high number of decisions and fields (e.g., ranging from automated resume screening to credit score systems). However, several scientific studies and journalistic investigations showed that data-driven decision systems may have discriminating behaviour towards specific groups in society, amplifying existing inequalities. In this talk we provide an overview of the problem, and we present preliminary research approaches for a fair AI.

Thursday 27th June

09.30-11.00 | AI and the digital public sphere
Dr. Antonio Santangelo, Politecnico di Torino (Italy)
Nowadays, algorithms analyse big data and on the basis of such analyses some other algorithms build or help people build news and contents, bots and other algorithms diffuse them through the net and we use them to create a debate on the digital social public sphere. This affects the formation of the public opinion and many States are thinking do make laws to regulate this phenomenon. In the lecture, “Persuasori social”, a research made by the Nexa Center on this topic, will be discussed with the students.

11.00-11.30 | Coffee break

11.30-13.00 | The role of platforms in 21st-century scholarly communication and publishing
Prof. Jean-Claude Guédon, Université del Montréal (Canada)
The advent of networked computers has led to a fast evolution of scholarly publishing which, by now, has almost fully embraced digital means of publications. However, the achieved results, particularly by the major commercial actors, looks very much like what was in place in the late 20th century: journals ranked by impact factors. The consequences of this conflation between the commercial and the intellectual “value” of work is presently distortying the research environment.
Behind the journals, platforms are emerging as the dominant element of not only scholarly publishing, but also of scholarly communication. If we define a platform as a portal enriched by algorithms, it incorporates the means to manage three kinds of  “sociologies”): the relationship of individuals to documents, the relationship of documents to documents, and the relationship of individuals to individuals as mediated by documents. Already, some firms, such as Clarivate, are working at translating this power into an ability to “profile” researchers, leading to a research context just as commercialized (and potentially perverted) as our societies transformed by Facebook. This also opens up untols possibilities for the fast evolving field of artificial intelligence.
What can researchers do to ensure the evolution of platforms in a direction that serves the objectives of knowledge creation better?

Friday 28th June

09.00-10.00 | Overcoming bias in human input data to AI
Prof. Charles Nesson, Harvard University (USA)
The students will be asked to assume, hypothetically, that they are the exclusive source of human data for an AI application, and they will be queried how we might as a group cleanse ourselves so that the AI to be schooled on our data is unbiased.

10.00-11.00 | The mind of God
Fern Leicher Nesson, Post-graduate Fellow at the Maine Media College with a J.D. from Harvard Law School and Master of Fine Arts Degree in Photography (USA)
That phrase is a quotation from Johannes Kepler about the mathematical underpinnings of the structure of the universe and my lecture examines the relationship of theoretical mathematical reasoning to abstract photography.  Included are topics such as transcendental numbers, the Theorem of Calculus and quantum computing. My research is basic to math, science and art. I will be speaking about the search for truth in each of these fields.  I will also explain its relevance to the study of artificial intelligence.

11.00-11.30 | Coffee break

11.30-13.00 | AI and concentration of power
Prof. Maurizio Borghi, Bournemouth University (UK)
The lecture illustrates some emerging trends in Big Data analytics and Artificial Intelligence toward greater concentration of economic, technological and cultural power in the internet economy. It critically discusses the pitfalls in the current regulatory regime and how to address them.

14.00-15.30 | Demand for AI
Prof. Brett Frischmann, Villanova University (USA)
What AI should be built, and what AI should not? How smart should our supposedly smart techno-social systems be? Who decides? How do we know what AI we want? Who decides what AI we get or what AI gets built and deployed?
I will explore these and others questions that I began to answer in prior work, especially Re-Engineering Humanity, and that still occupy a significant part of my research.

15.30-16.00 | Coffee break

16.00-17.30 | Is digital labor the secret ingredient of AI?, or why humans may actually be taking robots’ jobs
Prof. Antonio Casilli, Telecom Paris Tech (France)
Research on the socio-economic consequences of intelligent technologies tends to focus on the deployment of AI in business process automation, thus creating a knowledge gap as to the actual modes of production of machine learning- and data-intensive solutions. Data generation, preparation, verification bear considerable impact and societal risks. Research is underway to surface the actual amount of visible and invisible human labor necessary to produce automated solutions, thus questioning the displacement effects of AI on employment and the century-old “robots will steal our jobs” rhetoric.

Monday 1st July

09.00-10.30 | AI’s impact on human rights in the digital era
Dr. Monica Senor, The Italian Data Protection Authority (Italy)
The lecture will focus on the impact of IA on freedom of expression, privacy (profiling and automated decision-making) and the principle of non-discrimination.

10.30-11.00 | Coffee break

11.00-12.30 | AI neural network, open source and AI software for art
Dr. Bruce Sterling, Author and Journalist (USA), and Dr. Jasmina Tešanovic, Activist and Writer (Serbia)
The Share festival art maker bag has the concept of putting together traditional handcraft and new technologies in an art project assigned to the artists with a topic we choose every year. Share festival itself is an art platform  for artists from all over the world who bravely cross media  eliminating  borders between disciplines, genres, tools and technologies. 

Tuesday 2nd July

10.00-12.30 | Final exam

Extra-educational activities

Rowing course, in collaboration with CUS Torino, at Impianto CUS Sicilia.
Wednesday 26th June | 18.00-20.00
Thursday 27th June | 18.00-20.00
Saturday 29th June | 18.00-20.00
Sunday 30th June | 18.00-20.00
Monday 1st July | 18.00-20.00

Information to reach Impianto CUS Sicilia, Corso Sicilia 50:
Underground station Carducci. You can easily reach the Piazza Zara from Metro Carducci in around 12 minutes.
to Piazza Zara, n° 47-66-67
Dress code:
T-shirt, shorts, trainers. You will need a change of clothes.

Social activities
Thursday 27th June | 20.30-22.30 | Welcome drink at Turin Jazz Club
Tuesday 2nd July | 20.00-23.00 | Social dinner at Alla Lettera Restaurant

Further information