Autonomous World: humans, machines and the energy transition

Published on Wednesday, 11 November 2020

In the words of Francesco Starace, CEO and General Manager of Enel: "The world is evolving in an organic way, and this new world outside of humankind is increasingly resembling us.” This phrase serves as a perfect introduction to explain the rise of autonomous technologies. Emerging technologies have helped society become more advanced and self-sustaining. Automated and clean energy vehicles, smart city infrastructures and robots that can operate without human assistance are amongst the disruptive tools that are constantly reshaping the world as we know it. 

Automation has enriched the way industries around the world perform daily activities. The paradigm of autonomous technologies enlivened the conversation in the latest Enel MeetUp, on October 28th, when Enel and its CEO Starace joined experts from companies and universities from around the world to discuss the increasing collaboration between humans and machines.

At this Autonomous World MeetUp, speakers mounted a virtual stage to showcase the latest developments, trends and future opportunities in the field. The event also addressed the ethical concerns and risks associated with autonomous technologies. As Starace said during the event, “we are seeing the evolution in these technologies.” He added: “The simple fact that we are talking about this technology today is absolutely fascinating.”

 

An inspiring virtual gathering

Moderated by Barbara Gasperini, the co-founder of content-creation startup KTrek, the event kicked off with a couple of success stories about the autonomous technologies Enel is implementing. Salvatore Bernabei, CEO of Enel Green Power, highlighted projects dealing with drone technologies for observation and sensors that allow an increase in safety and resilience within plants. According to Bernabei, “these technologies are creating an important path toward change and have provided us with opportunities to improve the quality and reduce the time and cost of our processes.”

“In the world of automation, we have opted for a gradual increase in technology,” said Antonio Cammisecra, Head of Enel Global Infrastructure and Networks. “With this gradual increase, people can focus their efforts on more creative processes.”

Matthew Knights, Director of Sales at Boston Dynamics, and Pulkit Kapur, Business Development and Strategy Representative from Amazon Web Services, shared their insights on how autonomous technologies can be helpful to humans at work from an engineering standpoint. Bringing autonomy to unpleasant or potentially hostile environments has allowed industries, especially utilities, to streamline processes and reach areas that are unsafe for employees. Robots are now widely used for monitoring converter stations, simple tool delivery, inventory management and even the sanitization of facilities. By using cloud services for simulations, engineers can train the robots in a matter of hours and at a fraction of the cost. “By 2030 it is estimated that 70% of all mobile material handling equipment will be autonomous,” Kapur said.

What does this autonomy mean for humans? It is here that we encounter ethical concerns surrounding this technology. Both Francesca Rossi, AI Ethics Global Leader at IBM, and Father Paolo Benanti, Professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, described how the world is dealing with this transition. “Artificial Intelligence is not seen as a separate form of intelligence, but it is meant to expand human intelligence and decision-making capabilities,” said Rossi. By taking into consideration how the technology involves stakeholders, whether they use it or not, guidelines and norms can be created to regulate any negative impact. Professor Benanti summed this up by saying: “Developments need to be global, inclusive, plural, aware of differences between men and women, and fertile to allow for a brighter future. Overall, these developments must be kind and they must be attentive to human beings.”

The virtual event concluded with real-world industry examples from Professor Ken Goldberg of the University of Berkeley and Mike Nugent, Head of Fleet Strategy and Fleet Business Incubation at Hitachi Europe. Goldberg focused on how agrotech is evolving and how these technologies are helping farmers to optimize irrigation and polyculture. “Precision agriculture is the future, it’s undeniable. This will allow us to get much more efficient behaviors in our farms,” said Goldberg. Separately, the way the technology is being implemented in smart mobility to create more efficient means of transportation was described. “It's not just about transportation, it's also about energy and the way that we use it,” said Nugent. That said, “there is a very large interest in how technology and operations work together to deliver this benefit,” he added.

 

The future of autonomy

The future is uncertain, but technology has definitely made humans more independent and has taken our society to new frontiers. In this exciting landscape we must consider a myriad of possibilities and connections. For example, “there is not only a relationship between humans and machines, but also one between machines and machines,” as Starace pointed out. Given those connections, Enel is not "only taking care of our machines but also our customers' machines because they are more closely interconnected,” he said. Through this customer-centric approach, automation can become more ethical and more collaborative.

By combining human knowledge, ethics, the #EnelOpenInnovability approach and technology, we can leverage the power of autonomous technologies to make them work with us, not just for us. This collaborative universe is growing, and we still need to understand how it will blossom in the years ahead. One thing that is for certain is that if humans and machines are to live in the same space, both innovation and this conversation must remain open for all. 

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