NEW WORLDS. Luciano Violante is President of Fondazione Leonardo Civiltà delle Macchine (The Leonardo Foundation – Machine Civilization) whose goal is to bridge humanistic and industrial cultures. He is a former Italian magistrate, politician and academic. He was a Member of Parliament in the Chamber of Deputies from 1979 to 2008, where he was President of the Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission from 1992 to 1994 and of the Chamber of Deputies from 1996 to 2001.

Luciano Violante, could you please tell us what the Leonardo Foundation does?

We basically deal with two topics: artificial intelligence and space. I will start with artificial intelligence. The key point is that artificial intelligence is not a tool, but a world. It is not a question of using it as a tool in our lives, but rather of bringing our lives into that world. We are entering a different world, an immaterial one, real but immaterial, and our whole life in the future will increasingly be an intersection of the material and immaterial worlds. We started with a major international conference on the ethical and legal status of artificial intelligence; together with Bocconi University in Milan and the Universities of Trento and Florence we have set up a laboratory to gather all the legal material, both legislative and jurisprudential and academic, on artificial intelligence.

Should regulations be established, including ethical and moral rules, on the use of artificial intelligence?

There are European regulations and those of individual states. The problem is that regulations are fixed and slow, while artificial intelligence is mobile and fast. The regulations are constantly chasing what is going on, both at a European level, and according to the standards of the United States, and as regards individual countries. As I mentioned earlier, we have to keep in mind that we are entering a world. It’s like entering a jungle: you have to have rules about how to behave in the jungle, knowing that there are snakes and mosquitoes, that you can trip and so on. But if you traverse the jungle, you can also go to extraordinary places; so we need to have an international authority, shared by everyone, to traverse the world of artificial intelligence, foreseeing all the rules we need not to get trapped and establishing principles as problems arise.

Will we be completely in the hands of artificial intelligence?

Not in the hands of; we will totally use artificial intelligence. It is like when you enter any new space: you can decide whether to be subordinate to it or to govern it. It depends on the capabilities you put in place.

“Our whole life in the future will increasingly be an intersection of the material and immaterial worlds”

Luciano Violante

The Perseverance rover on Mars. Image:  NASAJPL-Caltech

Luciano Violante, is artificial intelligence a great progress for mankind?

I think it is the greatest progress of the last hundred years and a great leap forward for mankind. Keep in mind that any technological progress involves risks. When the first car was introduced in London in the 1870s, after a lady was run over to prevent further accidents it was decided that every car should be preceded by a man carrying a red lantern to indicate that a car was coming. But then things changed. We now know that when crossing the road you have to look both to the right and to the left and that it is better to cross on the crosswalk. We create rules according to the type of risk that can arise.

Will artificial intelligence completely change the way we live and work?

It has changed it and continues to do so. If there had been no artificial intelligence during lockdown we would have been destroyed. Think how many relationships have been maintained by artificial intelligence, how many lessons have been taught that otherwise could not have been taught. Think also of medicine: a whole series of evaluations and consultations have been done through the network that allows for the storage of health data and thus the rapid determination of a person’s state of health and possible risks. These are all enormously positive factors. Of course, there is also the downside: we have to prevent these data from being passed around and the confidentiality of each person from being violated. But this is all part of technological innovation, which has both benefits and risks. You have to take the benefits and avoid the risks.

Can you explain the relationship between the Leonardo Foundation and the exploration of space?

For our generation space represents what the discovery of the American continent represented at the end of the 15th century. At that time the problem of freedom of the seas arose, today the problem of freedom in the use of space arose; at that time the problem of how to get there and what to do once there arose, today the same problem arises not only for the Moon and Mars, but also for all celestial bodies. The discovery of the American continent was preceded by the invention of the printing press, today the discovery of space is preceded by the internet. There is a singular similarity between the discovery of the American continent and the printing press, which allowed us to know what was happening, just as artificial intelligence allows us to know, very quickly, what is happening on celestial bodies. I say this because, as far as the American continent was concerned, there were some major problems.

“In the future, space will increasingly be a huge market”

Luciano Violante, what were the problems?

First of all, how to get there, so as to avoid risks and dangers that were not so well known at the time; secondly, what to do once you get there; there was also the problem of registering the great territories of the west. The fastest wagon won the best piece of land. How will we deal with space? Will we have the lunar cadastre and the Mars cadastre? There are divisive problems and others on which we can all work together, including the problem of space waste. Today there are about 34,000 objects in space larger than 10 cm, 900,000 objects between 1 and 10 cm and 128,000,000 objects between 1 mm and 1 cm. There is the problem of managing space junk, because if a 1 mm object reaches a speed of 48,000 km/h it will pierce any kind of surface. Then there is the problem of traffic management. There is currently a significant argument about how many satellites can be put into space and at what orbit. Then there is the question of light pollution: there is too much light in space, the nights are no longer dark because the satellites, of which there are so many, reflect moonlight, sunlight or earthlight and therefore do not allow astronomical research to be carried out at night. We can all agree on these issues. On the other hand, as regards the extraction of materials from the celestial bodies, their use and employment, we are still far behind, because there are significant rivalries between countries and also between private individuals.

Do private individuals have the same rights as states in the development of space?

In the future, space will increasingly be a huge market. Just think of space tourism for example, or the possibility of extracting resources which we need from celestial bodies. It is also a security issue, because today all our technologies are directed by space: an iPhone depends on space, a car’s satellite navigation system is governed by space, trains move governed by space satellites, the same for planes, and so on. Our lives depend on space. Space gives us much more than we can give it. As far as private individuals are concerned, in 2015 Obama authorised private individuals to deal with space, subject to US authorisation, guaranteeing them protection of industrial secrecy. Until then, space was considered to belong to everyone. Trump, before leaving the White House, issued a statute stating that the US did not recognize space as belonging to everyone and that it had priority in its use. Of course China and Russia can say the same thing. I hope that sooner or later we will reach an agreement between the big countries on how to use space and operate within it.

If there are future wars, will they be space wars or land wars?

We have a working group on the conflict of the future. We foresee that it will be a very high-tech conflict, which will not focus on the physical killing of adversaries but on blocking their communications. If someone were to cause the satellites that govern our telephones, our digital conversations, our trains and our planes to crash, everything would crash. So we are studying this to prevent what could be the enormous risks of such a conflict. Space is where international competition will move to.

Luciano Violante


Luciano Violante

Andromeda Galaxy by Sebastian Voltmer Photography

Luciano Violante

Mars by Massimiliano Veschini

Luciano Violante

Falcon 9 is a partially reusable two-stage-to-orbit medium-lift launch vehicle designed and manufactured by SpaceX in the United States. The latest version of the first stage can return to Earth and be flown again multiple times.

Luciano Violante

In the past 20 years the evolution of cities all over the globe has been tracked from space.

Luciano Violante

After some 200 days aboard the International Space Station, astronauts from NASA, France and Japan splashed down aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft in the Gulf of Mexico in early November 2021.

“Earth’s salvation comes from space”

Luciano Violante, the Leonardo Foundation is Italian and therefore European. Can Europe play a major role in space or are do we simply follow other countries?

No European country is able to compete with the United States or China. Italy has about 200 companies dealing with space with an annual turnover of about 2 billion euros, but Bezos alone has decided to invest $1 billion a year in space for ten years. There is no private player in Europe with the kind of economic strength that Bezos or others have, only European cooperation can bring such results. Now there will finally be a European defence instrument, a sort of first embryo of a European army, which is a very important thing. There is a delegation to space, but not yet sufficiently supported, especially because the competitiveness between France and Italy in this field acts as a brake and not as an engine for development. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was right to emphasise the need for a European armed force to support and complement NATO, not to replace it. I believe we need a European space policy.

A European legislature?

The legislation is worldwide, but bear in mind that the more we go on fewer countries are signing international agreements, because space is no longer something to look at but something to go through and use. This raises particularly important market and military problems. At the G7 meeting in Great Britain in June, the Western countries approved the Artemis Plan. Shortly afterwards, Russia and China signed a similar pact that concerns them. At some point it will be necessary to find an agreement between the two blocs to avoid an otherwise inevitable disastrous conflict.

Our transition to the Internet was very fast. Is the conquest of space also happening very fast?

Very fast. In 2015 private individuals were allowed to deal with space, today we have private satellites in space. Until 1990 we did not have any of the tools that we use today every day: Google was born in 1998, GPS in 2000, Facebook in 2004, the iPhone was introduced by Jobs in 2007, and so on. In thirty years, our lives have changed and this speed will also apply in space, because each of these tools applies in space. Housing modules are being built for the Moon. They are studying the possibility of using the 3D printer on the Moon for furniture; important research centres are also studying the use of lunar dust for the 3D printer, to avoid transporting dust from Earth.

How do artificial intelligence and space help with the problem of the Earth overheating?

The celestial bodies are rich in materials that we now extract from the Earth, sacrificing forests, water and so on, so this is the first help we get from space. If we are able to use materials that come from celestial bodies we will be able to save the Earth and reduce its exploitation. The second help is the possibility of creating a digital twin of the Earth that warns us of what is happening at any moment, day by day; this is another enormous use of the digital and of space. I must tell you that Earth’s salvation comes from space.

Do politicians understand this?

Few world leaders have a strategic vision, and this certainly has a negative effect. We have to insist that we talk about these things and that awareness of the importance of space for all of us grows. Politics has to deal with many things and governing is a difficult art. We have to cooperate so governments can become aware of these kinds of problems. The function of foundations and research centres is very important, because they picture the world that exists and that will exist and hand it over to the political authorities, who then decide on the strategies to implement.