Instead of ignoring the digital revolution or, for demagogical reasons, exacerbating the anxieties it raises, it would be better to reflect on it and adapt to it.
Together with the rejection of globalization and immigration, the fears caused by the digital revolution are one of the major causes of the rise of populism in developed democracies. Faced by the rising power of data and artificial intelligence in our present era, two temptations have come to light. The first consists in ignoring them because we lack the courage to bear up to the radical changes they involve. The second is a tendency to demonize them, even to go so far as predicting the elimination of humanity by robots. The cruel disillusions which arose out of the myth of the end of history popularized by Francis Fukuyama after the fall of the Soviet system should however prompt us to be prudent. Instead of ignoring the digital revolution or, for demagogical reasons, exacerbating the anxietes it raises, it would be better to refect on it and adapt to it!
The emergence of artificial intelligence sits at the confluence of three technological breakthroughs: increased calculation power, mass data storage and processing, and the complexification of algorithms. This technological revolution is different from previous ones which derived from the steam engine, the combustion engine, electricity and the computer; its spread has been much faster, because, in the space of a decade, 4.5 out of 7.6 billion people have become internet and cellphone users. Furthermore, all sectors of activity, all professions – including highly-qualified ones – and all economic functions have been affected, from production to consumption, as well as savings. Finally, the man-machine relationship has changed radically because the robot is no longer merely the extension or the rival of human beings; it is replacing them. A robot no longer just carries out tasks; it can learn, devise and thus overtake humans. The digital revolution must in no way be underestimated. It is revolutionizing the world of work, destabilizing salaried staff and favoring freelance work. It is bringing about the emergence of platform companies which are overturning the value chains by focusing on data management without producing the goods and services that they are selling. It has no bounds in terms of territory or national sovereignty, it circumvents regulations, tax systems and social welfare. It concentrates economic and political power in the hands of those who control and exploit data. We have already seen mobilization against digitalization in the revolt of French mayors against Airbnb and the demands of Uber drivers, from California to Europe, who want to be re-categorized as salaried staff.
Should we therefore conclude that this is the end of the world of work, of social welfare and of democracy and agree with Georges Bernanos who, in 1946, in La France contre les robots, stated that “a world in which technology wins, is a world in which freedom is lost”? Not really. Provided that the digital revolution, like any technical revolution, remains a means to an end and not an end in itself.
The digital era will profoundly transform not only the nature and location of activity and employment, but also lifestyles and government. It will redesign the hierarchy of individuals, companies, nations and continents. It will be up to everyone to choose either to be an active player in the changes or to submit to them, at the risk of becoming marginalized. In the past, the exodus from the country to the towns, the rise of the middle classes and the emergence of a service society have shown that it is possible to anticipate and support major changes in economic, social, cultural and political models.
The digital revolution is an exceptional opportunity to relocalize part of production and employment in developed countries; the increased productivity brought about by robotization will enable competitiveness to be restored. Hence the need to encourage research – in particular publilc research, which is tending to decrease in the OECD countries whilst being on the upsurge in Asia –, innovation and robotization, instead of attempting to put a brake on them with Malthusian regulations and taxes. Hence the importance of establishing a legal and ethical framework for the ownership, storage and processing of data and for the good use of artificial intelligence, notably in the key sectors of education, healthcare, security and defense. The digital revolution cannot be dissociated from strict regulation, which presupposes highly skilful public expertise in the evaluation of algorithms and the prevention of bias.
The world of work will not disappear, but it will change; labour will be redeployed to suit new economic and social needs. So it is vital to put great emphasis on education and life-long training to enable people to have effective interaction with robots. In the same way, the demise of the salaried worker is not imminent. But work contracts have to evolve, for they can no longer be based on a hierarchical structure and the model of employment for life. Social welfare, instead of being structured around administrative categories, also needs to be reorganized around individual accounts and transferable rights.
The digital revolution can therefore be put to use in reconciling citizens of developed countries with the idea of progress, if it is well directed and if its benefits are shared out equitably. People can live and work with robots without sacrificing their freedom if they preserve their rights with regard to data and if they remain in complete charge of artificial intelligence.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 3rd April 2017)