“I am not afraid that artificial intelligence might give computers the ability to think like human beings. I am more worried about people who might think like computers, without values or compassion, without any concern for the consequences”. These words are from Tim Cook, CEO and thus “number one” of Apple, the technological giant. These are the hot days of the middle of June. In Cambridge, in the township area of Boston. For the farewell ceremony of the graduates of the MIT, the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his speech to the students it was actually Cook, an engineer who studied as a manager and who was called twenty years ago by Steve Jobs to join the heights of Apple, who insists not so much upon the extraordinary progress of technology, but above all upon the moral and civil responsibilities which that progress involves. A sound ethical and cultural reflection, then, as well as one on corporate values (in Italy this was published by the Corriere della Sera newspaper on 18th June). Relating to “new bright ideas which can change the world”.

Welcome, indeed, to technology (including in the themes of the subjects for final examinations: our technological future and concerns which need to be addressed). Welcome to the robots which radically modify production processes and products and which, when they are connected to the networks along which “big data” travel, have become key players in the “digital” revolution which is transforming our industry and services. They are welcome even though they are being experienced as tools which cut out some of our traditional jobs. Precisely because “high tech” and “digital” plans and processes improve the quality and productivity of work, reinforce knowledge and competencies, and improve security (more technology equals fewer mishaps). Even if they open up unprecedented cultural and political questions, set down challenges and create social apprehension.

It is true that various working practices and an equal number of professions are disappearing from the horizon. But new ones are being created. And surely the challenge is that of managing this transition in a socially balanced manner, ensuring that the new technologies do not aggravate any existing professional, compensational or social inequalities. This is a political question. And a cultural one. About how society is managed. About values. About new rules. About a more efficient construction of a new “welfare state” (not the income generated by citizens, but how prepared they are to take on the changes in the job market). Not forgetting, of course, about corporate “governance” (more and better training is needed, and more space and responsibility for new ideas).

So, we are in no way faced with a sort of technological neo-enlightenment. Far from it. If anything, measurements are made with the critical investigation of dialectics between technological benefits and risks, problems and opportunities. Open topics on the comprehension and management of new competencies, with responsibility and a sense of limitation. Philosophical and anthropological questions indeed.

This is the essence of Cook’s thoughts for the MIT. Starting from a slogan which has defined the history of Apple (“Think different”) and from the inspiration of Steve Jobs to “make it possible for the madmen – the anti conformists, the rebels, the troublemakers, all those people who see things differently – to do their jobs better”.  The entrepreneurial spirit, by the way (we have already discussed this several times in this blog) is a creative spirit, and often a heretical spirit.  Something to be kept alive over time. And something which must be mixed into another essential dimension of a company: productivity, the mass nature of processes, the standard quality of products. To innovate.  To make profits. To invest. To create work. To support competitiveness in times of ever faster and more intensive changes. It is difficult to bring all these aspects together. It is a fragile balance. Ever moving. But indispensable. Exams which every good entrepreneur and competent manager know how to pass successfully.

Cook makes the point: “At the MIT you have learned how science and technology have the power to improve the world. Thanks to the discoveries made in this very place, millions of people are living better, more productive and more satisfying lives. And if we ever manage to solve even just one of the world’s major problems, from cancer to climate change, or educational inequality, it will be thanks to technology”.

High-tech rhetoric? No. Cook goes on: “Technology alone is not enough. And sometimes it can be part of the problem”. He quotes the importance of the views of Pope Francis (“the most incredible meeting of my life”) about the responsibility of managing change, of giving a soul to the economy and of creating better social balances. He underlines the negative aspects of the technologies themselves (“the threats to security and privacy, fake news and social media which are becoming antisocial”). And he confirms that the use of the positive strengths of technology “depends on us. It depends on our values and our commitment towards our loved ones, our neighbours, our communities; it depends on our love of beauty and on the conviction that our faiths are interconnected, on our sense of civic duty and on the goodness of our soul”.

This is an American speech. We are pointing out its resonance with the words of great Italian entrepreneurs, from Adriano Olivetti to Pirelli, as well as of the medium-sized and small entrepreneurs who even today drive forward areas and communities where their companies are growing thanks to their values, their quality, their “lathe-based moral commitment”, and their “beautiful factories” which are sustainable, both environmentally and socially.

Cook’s observations are useful. They are also coloured by the teachings of the so-called “practical philosophy” which has for some time taken hold in Silicon Valley and which gives guidance on the value of people, on leadership, on the limits of success, on responsibility, on “what is it that really matters apart from material achievement?”. “Socrate lavora alla Apple” (Socrates works at Apple), is the heading of “La Lettura” (The Reading) in the “Corriere della Sera” newspaper (18th June), relating to an interview with Andrew James Taggart, a philosopher at the University of Wisconsin, a proponent of “practical philosophy” and consultant for entrepreneurs and artists. Socrates is cited in view of his ability to pose questions which were awkward and out of keeping with common good sense: “It is a mistake to proclaim that technological experts are guiding the industrial revolution. It would instead be more appropriate to say that innovation and entrepreneurship need individuals with a background in social and human sciences in order to generate ideas and tell stories relating to something which for the time being does not exist but which could exist in the future. Philosophy provides two essential contributions: asking questions which other people could not even imagine; investigating fundamental issues with the purpose of demonstrating that it is possible to imagine alternatives to our tangible reality. Philosophy, like art, resorts to the posterity of the imagination with a view to future creation”.

“Think different”, precisely. A philosophical rule. And one which is fundamental for an innovative company.

27/06/2017