At the heart of the machine: a few days in San Francisco to talk about AI29 Janvier 2018
Three weeks ago, I had the good fortune of spending a few days in San Francisco with other representatives of French companies who had come to meet Silicon Valley players. Accompanied by the FABERNOVEL team, we spent 3 days meeting business people and researchers working on the development of artificial intelligence and its concrete applications in a wide variety of fields, from analysis of satellite data through to optimisation of websites as well as the development of multimedia bots and the use of deep-learning predictive models on the industrial or medical sectors.
Fifteen or so fascinating encounters, inside PARISOMA, the oldest coworking space in San Francisco that welcomes about 200 people each day. On our arrival, Dominique Piotet, the boss of PARISOMA and FABERNOVEL US, told us that two thirds of the members are from outside the United States (and it is true that when you move from one floor to the next you realise just how many young French people are attracted by the spirit of innovation that reigns “in the valley”, as they say here). Dominique pointed out that half of all business creators in Silicon Valley are immigrants. This was where the founders of Uber pitched for the first time during a competition between start-ups. The fact that they actually failed to win the competition that day gives hope to all those trying to get a new project up and running! PARISOMA is not only an open space, but also one that supports companies in their development and organises events every week, sometimes open to the public via Eventbrite. The day we arrived saw the first screening of the Meeting Snowden documentary in the United States directed by Flore Vasseur, business woman, writer and journalist. Out of curiosity and a little by chance, I stuck around to listen in on the documentary by this French woman who organised a meeting between Edward Snowden, the famous NSA whistleblower, Birgitta Jonsdottir, MP for the Pirate Party in Iceland and Lawrence Lessig, American attorney and law professor at Harvard. I ended up getting immersed in the issues raised by this somewhat incongruous trio – a geek, a poet and an attorney – in terms of protecting freedoms and safeguarding democracy: widespread surveillance, confiscation of power, or how certain fundamental rights can be undermined in some democracies in the name of the fight against terrorism (a highly worthwhile cause since I doubt whether anyone would question its legitimacy). Their debate resonated with me during the next 3 days, in meetings with local business people and researchers. Ultimately, what is the future of democracy when our own data eludes us?
Since my return, I have been asked to talk about this short trip to this fascinating city. So have I tried to do this exercise in writing, since the spoken word simply vanishes into thin air. Beyond artificial intelligence and its business applications (I will write another article on this subject), what I remember most from these few days is:
The electric atmosphere, the stimulating energy
In general, leaving your comfort zone and going out to meet other people in another city, with an open and curious state of mind, already means you are bound to come back improved, with seeds of new ideas planted in your head that will eventually sprout some time in the future. Beyond the appeal of novelty, spending a few days in San Francisco means you get the inexplicable feeling of being at the heart of the machine. Meeting business people and researchers is a big part of it, but I already sensed this amazing energy 7 years ago when I was lucky enough to spend 10 days there on holiday at the home of French friends.
This city is where all innovations come to life and it just leaves your head spinning. In PARISOMA, right in the heart of San Francisco, you discover that the headquarters of Uber and Twitter lie at the corner of the street, and that just two blocks away, stands the closely guarded warehouse containing the self-driving cars developed by Cruise (a start-up bought for $1 billion by General Motors in 2016) that you can see out on the street, in the middle of all the other cars (with humans still inside for now I should add!). As pointed out by Tom Morisse, Research Manager at FABERNOVEL in his article on funding for AI research in the European Union, no part of Horizon 2020’s €80-billion research and innovation programme is allocated to artificial intelligence, with the exception of robotics, and yet AI could help us to meet many of the challenges addressed through this programme adopted in 2013 for a period of 7 years (which helps explain it). The Chinese giant Alibaba has just ploughed $15 billion into AI research on its own, while the budget of Inria (the leading French public research organisation in the digital world) stands at €230 million “including a few crumbs for AI”, stated Laurent Alexandreon the Express.fr website on 14 November. The United States and China are going full steam ahead and the atmosphere is innovation friendly!
The start of a new era: AI is 60 years old, but now everything is accelerating
When we arrived, the boss of FABERNOVEL US welcomed us with these words: “This is a fascinating moment in time. We finally have the computing power to do incredible things with AI. It’s an amazing moment to understand what’s going on. Any delay today will be difficult to make up. There is a sense of urgency that you only feel by coming to San Francisco and meeting companies”.
A bit too scripted? (we came to “sense” the advances in AI and, after all, he was hardly going to launch our learning expedition by telling us to come back in 10 years, when the technologies would be really mature). After all, artificial intelligence is nothing new, being already over 60 years old. Even if we heard all kinds of definitions during this past week, sometimes contradictory, we can summarise AI by saying that it is based on algorithms that can simulate a form of intelligence to replace or surpass tasks performed by humans. We learned, moreover, that 3 or 4 years ago, no-one in Silicon Valley (really) spoke about applied AI, that is to say with impacts on business and society.
So why on earth is everything picking up pace now? I will speak about it in more detail in another article, but in short, 3 factors are behind this revolution: 1 / the volume of data available, 2 / the computing power (hardware) accessible via cloud and 3 / the development of machine-learning algorithms fed by the data made available to them. The majority of companies no longer have to invest in research, but can now see AI as a business opportunity or a tool to improve their performance. In other words, identify cases of use, pain points or targets to be achieved, and then see how artificial intelligence can be integrated into the response to these issues.
A sense of urgency about considering societal issues
No, I did not run into any mad scientists working on a humanoid that will manipulate humans to achieve its ends (but if you are interested in this subject, I recommend the movie Ex Machina in which I reckon that the movie-goer plays a full role: in the end, who manipulated who exactly?). Nor did I meet with GAFAM representatives, and the companies we had discussions with have developed technologies that are really interesting for businesses, in all sectors of activity and even for society in general, with, for example, significant advances in the field of health. But how far can private companies go “for the good of humanity”? If companies support government bodies, or even replace them in certain areas, is the economic criterion the only one to be taken into account when talking about business performance? What are we, as human beings, willing to give up for the sake of the common good without endangering the very principle of freedom and privacy? This is the subject of the movie The Circle, with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, which takes place in San Francisco and which I watched on the flight home, after discovering that all my partners on the learning expedition had seen it during the flight out (in my defence I should add that I watched Passengerson the outward flight, so I was still in tune with the theme of the trip!). Disturbing, without question. Are the undeniable improvements associated with certain technologies worth the loss of certain individual liberties? In the health sector, the question is a thorny one, in the light of this week’s approval (13 November) by the US Food and Drug Administration of the launch of the first digital drug – an antipsychotic pill – with an ingestion tracking system.
Advances in artificial intelligence are real, and we got a glimpse of many business or societal applications that will undoubtedly enable companies to perform better and humans to be healthier while limiting the risk of accidents. If the “self-driving” car is not here yet, we can see that it will be part of our daily lives in the not too distant future. In particular, it will enable us to no longer “waste time” on transport, since we will be able to read or work during the journey.
However, I was struck by the fact that the subject of protecting personal data was of no interest to the many American interlocutors I met. It has to be said that in San Francisco, having a personal smart home assistant like Alexa from Amazon, which records all the movements of the family, and therefore all personal data, has become the norm. Some people find it hard to imagine that other humans still manage to do without it (“today who doesn’t have their own virtual assistant? Nobody! And the few who don’t dream of nothing else”, we were told). Tomorrow, interacting with personal assistants, whether at home, in the car, on the phone or through connected objects, will be an everyday occurrence. If this is really what the future holds then it is high time we took it on board and began talking about ethics, so as to safeguard the privacy and freedom of everyone.
Since data is this century’s oil, companies have every interest in continuing to own it. But what about individuals in all of this? Do they still get to have a say? Clearly the new European regulation (GDPR) – which aims to strengthen the protection of personal data and is due to come into effect on 24 May 2018 – is a move in favour of the consumer, but we still need global awareness. Although there is no intention to slow down the train of modernity, we must be aware that there is a train on its way so as not to be left standing on the platform. As human beings, it is also worth thinking about the route taken by this train or even – let’s go mad – joining together to imagine the next destinations and the impacts of this journey on the environment and living beings, human or otherwise. If we give up certain freedoms for a greater common cause, what is this cause that drives us and moves us forward? The question is posed by Yuval Noah Harari in his book Homo Deus (following his best-sellerSapiens), which everyone should have on their bedside table if it is not already the case. As business leaders, we also have a responsibility to anticipate and better prepare our organisations for ongoing and future changes.
The lack of women working in Silicon Valley
I am making this observation at the end for two reasons: 1 / I think that unfortunately, I would have lost half or even three-quarters of the readers of this article if I had started with it