Interview with Federico, author of <Robots will steal(2012-12-21 05:27:17)
Federico Pistono is an award winning author and journalist, social entrepreneur, scientific educator, activist, and aspiring filmmaker.
He is author of the book Robots will steal your job, but that's OK: how to survive the economic collapse and be happy, which explores the impact of technological advances have on our lives, what it means to be happy, and provides suggestions on how to avoid a systemic collapse and live happier.
Federico has written several articles for newspapers and blogs regarding a variety of topics, from science, technology, Internet communities and social media, artificial intelligence, climate change, technological unemployment and the future of society. He was interviewed by radio and TV stations in Italy, Denmark, Canada, and the United Stated. He hosted hundreds of hours of podcasts covering the impact of technology in society, activism, as well as science-related news. He was invited to speak at TEDxVienna, universities, symposia and other events around the world.
He has a formal education in science and technology, with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the University of Verona, Department of Mathematical, Physical and Natural Sciences. He continued his studies by following online courses at Stanford on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, as well as many other subjects. In 2012 he completed the Graduate Studies Program at Singularity University, NASA Ames Research Center, Silicon Valley, which included Synthetic Biology, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Nanotechnology and Digital Fabrication, Energy and Environmental Systems, Space and Physical Sciences, Design, Future Studies and Forecasting, Policy, Law and Ethics.
1) You are a very interesting person – at the age of 27, you have already played many different roles in your life: a software engineer, web manager, journalist, founder of two non-profit organisations, writer, public speaker… I am very curious of the path you took. Shall we start from your educational background?
Sure. At the age of 16, I received a scholarship that supported me to attend a two-year course at the UWC (United World Colleges). It is an international college whose goal is to bring young minds together, educate them to become leaders and responsible citizen, to create bridges between diverse cultures. During the UWC, I attended a wide range of courses, including environmental system and sustainability, maths, philosophy, and economics. We also took part in social works. In my first year, I joined the local community in helping disabled elderly.
Then, I started my undergraduate education in
the University of Verona.
In my opinion, learning is a life-long experience. Leaving the schools or universities does not mean we can or should stop learning. I am always hungry for knowledge, and self-learning is an important part of my life. Last year, for example, I took the online course on machine learning run by Stanford, and achieved a 99% score (I had a 1% penalty because I started a week late).
2) How do you transform from a computer technician to an entrepreneur, a writer and a public speaker?
I have a broad range of interests. I think the seed of curiosity was always inside of me. When I was little, I was intrigued by the idea of hacking. That was the reason that I chose computer science as my major for my undergraduate study, and my first several jobs were all related to computer engineering.
My curiosity expanded as I grew up. I became more and more interested in the problems of our society: unemployment, unsustainable exploitation of energy, pollution caused by waste disposal, etc. That is why I became an activist, a firm advocate of sustainability and of self-sustaining communities.
At the age of 19, I started my first non-profit organization (Grilli biellesi) whose goal was to promote sustainable practises, fight political corruption and criminal organisations, with a particular focus on Zero Waste strategies. I was in close contact with the “Centro di riciclo Vedelago” (recycling center of vedelago), a company that developed the technology to recycle 100% of the materials that come in, at a fraction of the cost of harmful methods such as incineration and landfills, using only mechanical-biological systems, 100% sustainable. This non-profit organisation was part of a larger movement, which in just a couple of years has then transformed into a part of a political party, now the second biggest in the country–unprecedented to my knowledge in history–called the Five Star Movement (the five stars stand for public water, sustainable transportation, development, connectivity, and environment).
3) How did you become the founder of
the Italian chapter of the Zeitgeist
(For readers who are not exposed to the Zeitgeist Movement, here is a brief mission statement written on its official website: Founded in 2008, The Zeitgeist Movement is a Sustainability Advocacy Organization which conducts community based activism and awareness actions through a network of Global/Regional Chapters, Project Teams, Annual Events, Media and Charity Work.)
The Zeitgeist Movement mission fits very well in my personal interest. At the time when I decided to take part in the movement, Italy was still a blank sheet. It took me a lot of hard work: building a website, gathering activists in the country, hosting conference calls, organise local events, etc. All these works were done at my free time, and the organization was self-financed. This non-profit organization soon was recognized officially by the Zeigeist, and became the Italian chapter of the movement. Later on, I joined the international coordination of the movement, and I gave my contribution on a larger scale.
4) How do you think the non-profit organisations bring positive impact to the society?
Most of the science and technology based organizations have a common goal: to provide a vision of the future. In the long-term, the movements will make people be more aware not only of the issues of our society, but also of the solutions. As long as people are aware of the vision, we will work together to make it happen.
In the short-term, many of the organizations, including the Zeitgeist, the Richard Dawkins’ foundation, etc, are also involved in charity works. We help to distribute resources, food, technologies, organise educational events, and provide practical support to the disadvantaged population.
5) I really appreciate the angle that you see the world. You are so much larger than life. No only you started two non-profit organisations, you are also an advocate of the open-source culture, aren’t you? I am curious on how the open-source community achieve self-reliance and global sustainability. Can you share your view with us?
The seed of openness goes back a long time, but it was in the 1980s, when the visionary thinker Richard Stallman created the Free Software movement, that everything changed. A few years later you had thousands of free software projects, one of which was Linux, which is now the most used operating system on the planet.
After making software free and open, we liberated music, arts, and culture, with the rise of Creative Commons licenses, and then the maker movement spread virally. Openness became radical openness, where you now have hundreds of thousands of open source projects, many of which hardware, physical things, like houses, industrial machines, robots, circuit boards, even food, anything really.
You see, Open Source wins in the long run because it just works better. It’s a non zero sum game. If I have a cake, and you have a cake, and we exchange cakes, we still have one cake each. But we each of us has an idea, and we make an exchange, we have two ideas each.
6) Last summer, you collaborated with The Renewable Energy Park in Umbria, Italy. Can you tell us a little more about that?
It was an amazing experience. The Renewable Energy Park is a 900-square meter research and educational facility. The result of our research work was seen not only academic, but in reflected practically in the environment around the facility. In there, everything is powered by renewable energies. We use capture and harness solar and wind power, we collect the water from the roof and purify it, and we also produce a substantial part of the food requirements. It is a perfect example of how to achieve self-sufficiency, living sustainably, and quite comfortably as well (the place is a natural hotel afterall).
7) Congratulations on your newly published book “Robots will steal your jobs, but that’s ok”. You are such a beloved character in the SU family that the title of your book has become the most frequent quote this summer. Can you give us a short introduction of your book?
Ahah, that was quite fun and unexpected. I guess I became a living meme–willingly or not.
The main idea is this. You are about to become obsolete. You think you are special, unique, and that whatever it is that you are doing is impossible to replace. You are wrong. As we speak, millions of algorithms created by computer scientists are frantically running on servers all over the world, with one sole purpose: do whatever humans can do, but better.
That is the argument for a phenomenon called technological unemployment, one that is pervading modern society. As technology advances exponentially, our ability to adapt to these rapid changes doesn’t go quite as fast. As a result, I predict that we will have major problems, which will eventually bring the entire socio-economic system into a state of collapse.
So far, there is nothing new with respect to
other authors. The twist in my book is that I don’t advocate smart
ways to get everyone new kinds of jobs, trying to fight automation.
I’d say we embrace it, but by changing our perspective and our
vision, transforming a crisis into an opportunity. By utilising the
same technologies that are displacing us in smart ways, we can
create a world where we easily provide for what we need, relying
mostly on ourselves and on communities of people like us, in an
open fashion, democratising the tools to thrive and liberate
ourselves from the shackles of a systems that makes us deeply
unhappy, stressed, and a in perpetual state of
8) I know that this is your first book, and you chose self-publish instead of the traditional publishing channel. Can you share with us your journey of writing the book? Would you recommend self-publishing for a first-time author? Can you share some tips as well?
Yes to the first question,
I was puzzled by the idea of how we adapt to the impact a new technology brings to the society – mostly positive, but sometimes creating a side effect along the way. This question has been in my mind for 4 to 5 years, especially when the unemployment rate saturated after the financial crisis hit Europe in 2008. This issue has been discussed in several popular books, including: "The Light in the Tunnel, automation: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future" by Martin Ford, "Race Against the Machine" by Andrew McAfee Erik Brynjolfsson. Though I appreciated their work and I agreed with their analysis of the problems, I had a different view on how to go about solving them. Finally, in Oct 2011, I decided to put my thoughts down in a book.
Creating and maintaining a community around the topic of the book is key in achieving self-publishing. It involves a lot of hard work. I set up a website dedicated to the book, twitter, facebook, tumblr. I write short articles on relevant topics: notes of my research work, forwarded news and materials published on other media, etc. I update the blog quite often. This is important to keep people’s interest.
It is equally important to rely on your peers in the community, and encourage them to share their knowledge with you. It is always helpful to listen to a second opinion, and to analyze the topic from as many angles as possible.
Finally, I would advise a first-time author
to give more time to your proof-reader–say a month, not a week like
9) In your opinion, what are the solutions to the unemployment problem caused by automation?
We will need to tackle the problem using two approaches: an approach that will produce short-term effect and one that provides a vision of the future.
In the short term, I think we need to rely on
a local community. In many cases, the unemployed need to transform
themselves to a role different to the one they took before. The
community should provide opportunities for people to re-educate
themselves for the purpose of getting back to a new employment
In the long term, I believe we must create a common vision and let the vision guide us transform our society. Many sci-fi novel writers have explored the possible futures, such as those described in Star Trek, Matrix, the Bicentennial Man, etc. I have also started writing a sci-fi book on this topic, titled “A Tale of Two Futures”.
10) How do you think the SU experience will help your future career?
SU’s mission coincides with the goal of my
future career – through science and technology, to bring positive
impact to billions of people. SU gave me an invaluable network of
like-minded individuals who are always ready to share their
knowledge with me, challenge my assumptions, prove me wrong, and
help me grow.