Commissioner Carlos Moedas: Science is at its best between frontiers

Commissioner Carlos Moedas gave a speech at the opening of the new study year.

The main building of the University of Helsinki is abuzz with new students and the spirit of starting a new academic year. At the same time, another hall fills up with European Union officials and university management who have come to hear two Helsinki Challenge teams present their research projects to the University’s guest of honour Carlos Moedas, the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation.

Katri Saarikivi from team NEMO – Natural Emotionality in Digital Interaction – and Michael Laakasuo from team Moralities of Intelligent Machines presented projects which are both related to issues concerning the future of technology. Commissioner Moedas had high praise for both teams.

“It’s very rare to find projects like these that define what science really is. To me, it is working in between frontiers of different disciplines”, Moedas said.

Communication is key, not forgetting legislation

Michael Laakasuo presented his team’s research topic of creating a whole new field of inquiry on the moral psychology of robotics. There have already been accidents where automated cars have made fatal decisions and people’s moral reactions to these incidents are still uncharted. Laakasuo’s research could help whole industries work with new decision-making robots. 

The Commissioner saw the issue as extremely relevant and pressing. Back in Brussels, he had already been shocked to find that there is only little or no research on the subject of the morality of robots that he knows of.

“I asked my chief of staff about this and was alarmed that we’re not doing more for this issue”, he said.

The automation industry is growing rapidly, so new legislation is needed quickly. This is what politicians are interested in, Moedas said and urged Laakasuo to contribute to the law-making process.

“We can’t find ourselves in a situation in five years where we have beautiful legislation on something that does not exist anymore.”

The Moralities of Intelligent Machines met with the Commissioner and got very enthusiastic feedback on their research idea.

Another piece of advice concerned communication. There is a lack of awareness around the issue, so the team is going to have to make it more known and build a receptive environment for their research. Moedas advised the team to prepare for this and communicate their challenge widely and understandably.

“You will first face barriers of people not understanding what you’re doing. And even when they do understand, they probably don’t want to hear it, as the subject is scary.”

Empathy is the future

Katri Saarikivi’s team is on a mission to change the internet and study if digital interactions can be as natural and rich as those in the physical world. Children spend more and more time on the Internet, where cyber bullying and the absence of empathy are everyday issues.

Saarikivi got praise from Moedas on her presentation skills and the importance of their research project. He felt that the project will resonate widely, as most parents are already worried about the amount of time their children spend online.

“As a parent you are putting your finger in the river and waiting for it to stop. Your team is showing us how to embrace something inevitable, and even making it into a win-win situation”, Moedas said.

He pointed out that this is an important issue also in the job market, where emotional intelligence and empathy are in demand. In a world where we are digitizing and automatizing everything possible, the only thing left for a human being is interaction, Saarikivi pointed out. The Commissioner agreed: you cannot automate emotions, so emotional knowledge and interaction skills become a valuable experience.